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Friday, March 05, 2021

In the ‘new normal’ of being housebound, a look at how the drawing room has evolved through the ages

As the pandemic has turned spaces in our homes multifunctional, in an increasingly virtual world, has the drawing-room come a full circle?

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi |
Updated: January 31, 2021 10:04:54 am
Where the action was: Comedy of Manners or drawing-room plays have been part of theatre since the Victorian times. (Photo: Shabnam Gupta)

The drawing room is dead. Long live the drawing-room!” It’s a phrase that has never been more relevant. As spaces in our homes become multifunctional in an increasingly virtual world and we are reduced to thumbnail windows on meeting platforms, has the drawing-room come full circle? From formal spaces where we received guests, the drawing room has become our work-from-home station, where aspirational virtual backgrounds (beaches or bookshelves) have taken over. Yet, much before the drawing-room was the total, thinner, baranda, balcão — the public space to courtyard houses, where neighbours dropped by for a chat or strangers stopped to ask for directions — “it formed the public threshold, the interface with the street, where social interactions with strangers and neighbours were at street level. There was no concept of a formal drawing-room. Indian domestic spaces, typically for large joint-families, focused on multifunctionality and flexibility of spaces. There was also no concept of formal furniture. It was largely floor-based or low-height, such as khatiyas, gaddis, jhoolas, or chatai, which are light and easy to move around. The addition of a drawing room as a formal and enclosed space to meet visitors first arose in well-off Indian homes, with the arrival of the Portuguese and the British,” says Kamalika Bose, conservation architect and co-author of A History of Interior Design in India (SID Research Cell, CEPT University, Ahmedabad).

Over time, the drawing-room grew to become a marker of class and status. The drawing-room was the nucleus of the house and it was best referenced in Hindi films, where a grand staircase rose from the living room and a piano symbolised opulence. In the 1949 Mehboob Khan film Andaz, the staircase is where all the action unfolds, while in Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994), a fatal fall from the living-room stairs steers the story. Even today, Hindi serials carry forth the legacy of grand staircases, for evil in-laws to make unsuspecting victims tumble down those heights.

Mumbai-based architect-academic Smita Dalvi, whose doctoral thesis was on homes and Hindi cinema, says, “The house was always larger than life. Hindi films even governed the fashion quotient in our homes. For example, in Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid (2009), Konkona Sen sets up a ‘my corner’ with fairy lights, books and posters, presenting herself as a single girl on a low budget with a charming personality. Much before, Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) presented the modern living room as an aspirational space.”

Somewhere in the mid-’80s, the drawing-room, where the formality of life took place, was superseded by the living room. The former was the formal space to receive visitors, often separated from the rest of the house, the latter was where the family hung out, where the wife chopped vegetables on the table, the children kept their feet up on the sofa as they watched loud TV and the pressure cooker in the kitchen whistled in the background.

The “see-but-don’t-touch” drawing-room, on the other hand, came with spotless upholstery, art and crystal collections. “It became a room of illusions. A place where your prized collectables are on display, while the living room is a place where you sit easy. It gives you a feeling of balance, while the drawing room is the crutch that establishes your place in society, the image you wish to portray to the world. The primary difference is between the ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ state of mind. The drawing room became a demonstration of power,” says Delhi-based architect Verendra Wakhloo.

Often, a hierarchy was not uncommon — the drawing-room would have a designated chair for the man of the house while the seating for guests would be less comfortable, to send the message that one cannot overstay. Mumbai-based architect Chandrashekhar Kanetkar has worked on numerous high-end residences where this power play takes centre stage. Drawing rooms have been designed as multiple sections, some leading into courtyards, some offering glimpses of libraries, to cater to different types of visitors. His designs also incorporate bar lounges and drawing rooms with show kitchens. “There should be an element of curiosity when you plan a drawing-room. It’s a game of hiding and seeks,” says Kanetkar, adding, if you reveal all at one go, there
is little left to engage the guest?

The coming of drawing rooms made a connection with the outside world shrink. Traditional houses with semi-public places made it possible for owners to connect with the neighbourhood and the street. One moved from the outside to the inside, transcending thresholds of privacy and engagement. As ground-hugging homes made way for high-storeyed apartments, balconies took the space of the total or the verandah. “The balcony became that in-between space which connected the house to the sky and the ground, and your neighbours above or below. In Bombay, real-estate mechanisation is leading to vanishing balconies. Carpenters bring down windows on the parapet and break down walls between the living room and the balcony, to make the room bigger. It has further disconnected us from the outside. This pandemic has made one feel the absence of balconies much more,” says Dalvi.

Over time, the drawing-room grew to become a marker of class and status. (Photo: Shabnam Gupta)

The other move from British bungalows to modernist architecture was the democratisation of spaces within the house. The 2BHK eliminated the need for a drawing room and gave everyone the ubiquitous hall. This transition meant a move
towards homogenisation of homes. “With the modernist era, the idea of the community disintegrated. In the modern age, our lives have become generic,” says Mumbai-based urban designer and academic Rohan Shivkumar. The modern plan of a house had become uniform with mass housing. The unique individual designs of a drawing-room were left behind to accommodate the requirements of a BHK format. Spaces could be modified to suit any function — just the nomenclature had shifted.

Architect Gautam Bhatia recalls his childhood years where the drawing-room was a collage of many travels. “Our parents never thought of what a drawing-room could be. It was a place for all kinds of collectables, from the Air India Maharaja ashtrays to souvenirs and even chipped cups. It was about filling up space,” he says.

Bose testifies to how in modest homes, the drawing-room also doubles up as a sleeping space, with the occasional sofa-cum-bed making an appearance. In recent times, with “the integration of the drawing-cum-dining space, it has blurred the formality of the drawing-room. It is now evolving into a more flexible and fluid space,” she says. It goes without saying that the shift has also made a difference to hierarchies. If earlier women weren’t allowed to come to the front of the house before outsiders, those walls had now collapsed.
“The traditional Indian floor-based seating was replaced by multiple clusters of raised furniture, central to which were carved and upholstered sofa sets and central tables. New carpentry skills acquired by local woodworkers also enabled a wider application of styles, motifs and elements. However, till the 1930s, we see singular styles and themes of period furniture — be it traditional, colonial, Art Deco or modern — dominating drawing-room aesthetics. After Independence, the drawing room has been the quickest to absorb and integrate trends and styles to become an eclectic space with furniture pieces from various eras — modernist masters chairs now sit alongside sankheda (low-seating) sofa-chairs and Portuguese loveseats,” says Bose.

Décor magazines, by the late 1990s, and platforms such as Pinterest, in late 2000s, have made it possible to dream of new ways to dress up homes, and advertisements, international trade fairs and e-commerce sites gave people access to wider markets, making it possible to buy that designer chair or those dripping chandeliers. Mood lighting and statement décor raced their way into homes.
However, while the market connected people, modular living made it impossible to tell a story. Living spaces looked like catalogues and algorithms dictated the new aesthetic. While the look had changed, the sentiment was still the same — a display of social status.
However, Wakhloo points to a different imagination as he references homes of Pritzker winner BV Doshi and Delhi-based architect Ashok B Lall. “In Doshi’s Ahmedabad house, the living room is like a large foyer, which connects to the basement, where his meditation room is, and, to the upper floor, to the open area in the garden and the kitchen. You enter the living room, and you get the feel of being in a covered courtyard. Ashok Lall’s living room with its magnificent skylight allows you to view the sky from inside. It connects the ground to the sky and one is humbled by it. You are no longer the protagonist of the space, you become aware of the larger universe. There is no exaggeration of the self, like in a formal drawing-room. A home should finally reflect your family, a vision of yourself and the cosmology you carry within you,” he says.

Drawing rooms may well be dead in the pandemic, however, experiences of space need not be. Chennai-based architect Pramod Balakrishnan gives the example of one of his residential complexes in Perumbakkam, Chennai. “We gave residents multiple ways to reach their own homes. It wasn’t just a lift and a staircase. We even had a chessboard square in common areas, where people could come, play and interact. The formality of the drawing-room has diminished as people meet their friends outdoors, play a game of chess and engage with others who probably are watching them play. It changes the way we communicate, exchanges ideas and builds relationships. It’s an attempt at taking it back to where it all began, and increasing the interaction with the street and neighbours,” he says.

A Room of Their Own: The drawing room in literature

Victorian society believed in specific activities for every room and the “withdrawing room” was where ladies retired after dinner. This private room soon came to be known as the “drawing chamber” or the drawing room

Jane Austen, the 18th-century English novelist, best describe interior spaces in her work. Objects of a house reveal a character’s emotions and situation, be it a faded footstool or a shabby sofa. In Northanger Abbey (1817), for instance, the 19th-century furniture and English china set speak of opulent modernity

Edith Wharton is known for “drawing-room naturalism” in her stories. In a short story that the American novelist wrote at age 11, she opens with a guest’s entry into Mrs Tomkins’s house and the host says, “If only I had known you were going to call, I should have tidied up the drawing-room.” Wharton’s mother is said to have remarked: “Drawing rooms are always tidy”

The comedy of manners or drawing-room plays has been part of theatre since Victorian times when the action was located in the drawing-room. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is one of its finest examples

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