Recently, one of our reader friends came to us with a unique problem – how to decorate her house in Bangali style! Though a little bit taken aback at first, it caught my interest. But neither am I an expert on home décor, nor do I swear to be the “guru” of Bengali decorating decorum! So how can I contribute? The only way any individual can – by giving the personal perspective (for whatever tuppence it is worth!).
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes… a typical Bengali home… the “boithakkhana” perhaps…
Red cemented flooring, with a black border or not; dark wood furniture – a low divan or “chouki”, sprinkling of single seaters, matching coffee table, a bookcase or two in the corner, and please, please an ancient easychair by the window – the rattan weaving grown oily smooth and dark with the imprint of the person reclining on it for so many years; a teapoy on the side; a “Shantiniketani batik” spread on the divan, lightweight handloom curtains in windows, terracotta lampshades here and there, art prints on the wall – ranging anything from Nandalal Basu to Paresh Maity, with a good measure of Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso thrown in. And the quintessential bunch of fragrant rajanigandha (or the colorful gladioli) in a brass flower vase.
But, “O tempora! O mores!” as the great Birinchibaba lamented. As most of us did not inherit the ancestral house with the red cemented floor, or had to let go of the beautiful but heavy teakwood furniture while moving to another city, we have to talk about NOW. What we can do in the present scenario.
We might let go of the heavy mahogany or Burma teak furniture, but we can retain the dark wood finish. This finish lends a quiet, elegant feel to the room. You can preserve a single antique piece of furniture to use as the focal point of the room, and build the rest to go with that. Alternatively, you can do a 180 degree turn and choose lightweight cane furniture. Originally found in Assam or Tripura State Emporium, now most of the local furniture marketplace display sofa sets, coffee tables, corner shelves and book racks made from cane. A little high maintenance (you have to keep an eye on any of the bindings coming loose), it sets a cheerful mood in the house.
Furnishings. To me, it essentially has to be cotton. 70% part of the year we have summer, 25%-part monsoon, leaving only 5%-part wintertime for the heavy satin, jacquard or brocade. Pick out light furnishing materials in bright colours. Khadi used to sell ready-made door and window curtains in solid colours with a woven border. Had a quaint, old-world charm. Handloom Emporium is a good place to check out. For bedspreads and cushion covers, batik is a good choice. A vibrant spread of yellow, white and green will instantly brighten up the room; or the classic combination of red and white. Though a bit tricky to maintain (always dry wash), Bengal’s own kantha-stitched sheets and covers are also another option. A quick tip: bright borders from discarded tangail sarees can be stitched on plain cushion covers or curtains for a unique, exclusive look.
Use the vast repertoire of Bengal’s handicrafts as home accents around your house. Terracotta from Bankura region, dokra from Birbhum, the Chhau masks from Purulia… Google Bengal Handicrafts and you’ll be flooded with options. The vividly coloured wooden “lokkhi pnecha”, the homely cane “moda” with a leather seat (far more handy than the pouffe, ottoman and beanbag). Remember the humble “haatpakha”, our only friend during the long bouts of “loadshedding” (power cuts, for the uninitiated) in summer days? Still available in the market, stitch a red satin ribbon around the edges and voila! You got yourself an unusual wall hanging! The “sheetal paati” from the North-East states was an essential part of the Bengali household in yesteryears. Sprinkled with water and wiped off with a cloth, it was a bliss to lie down on in sweltering summer afternoons. Go on, give it a try. Or you can frame one and use as a headrest to cleverly protect your walls from hair-oil stains. Instead of the fashionable throws and rugs, use the homespun “shataranchi”, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The modest “lonthon” (hurricane lantern) has made a comeback in a modified electric avatar as the quirky, retro decoration piece for resorts and restaurants. You can use it just as a memento.
Books, books and more books. There HAS to be at least ONE bookshelf in EVERY Bengali household, even if it contains nothing more than a “ponjika”, “Sansad Bangla Abhidhan” and last year’s sharadiya magazines! Bengalis, by and large, are proud of their literary heritage (or should I say ‘were’?!). Whether they read them or not, they like to display their printed acquisitions. Buddhadeb Basu wrote a whole short story based on this quirky characteristic of the Bengali mindset (Rabindra Rachanabali, remember?). But yes, books and book shelves you must have, to add another layer of that ‘lived-in-by-bangali’ feeling to your home.
On the walls. It is best to avoid posters if you want to adhere to “bangaliyana”, unless they are rare and old movie/famous posters. My pick would be art prints or paintings. And I’m not at all picky about whom you pick 🙂 . From Great Masters to Bengal School to Contemporary Artistes – it is your wall, it has to be your choice. Whatever intrigues you, or gives you a warm, happy feeling. But if you are an amateur as me in matters of artistic taste, it is advisable to stick to the tried and tested ones, at least for the start. Select the prints of famous paintings, confidently.
Any household, Bengali or otherwise, is incomplete without flowers. It can be a bunch of rajanigandha, gladioli, roses, dahlia or chrysanthemums in a flower vase; a handful of “jui phool”, “bel phool” or “shiuli phool” on a plate, sweet-smelling and refreshing; even the humble “rongon”, bunched together with a few fresh leaves and placed in a brass or copper glass, would give your room a happy glow. I have seen aunts place a bunch of “patabahar” (croton) leaves in a vase, when nothing was available. And believe me, the effect was no less striking.
As I said, it is your house; you decide what to put in it, and where and how. Give this article a read, pick out whatever you like, if any, and chuck out the rest.
You are one “bangali” enough to make your home a Bengali household.
Photo courtesy: Easychair – vijipandian.blogspot.com; Shantiniketan Mora – www.craftandartisans.com; Painting – Bikash Bhattacharjee, www.artofbengal.com; Rongon – flower.zm-tech.net
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