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Why Mumbai's Chor Bazar is buzzing

February 10, 2007 13:38 IST

Mumbai's Chor Bazaar is at its busiest. . . everybody wants a piece of the action on its narrow grimy alleys.

Blame it on the universal dismissal of minimalist decor or the laws of supply and demand but most likely because everyone now knows that a trip to Chor Bazaar is like heading out on an adventure  --  dodge the runaway ram, avert testosterone-laden stares, slither past the huge tubs of scorching chicken curry. . . 

It's also always a bit of a hit-and-miss, with the odd antique jewel among rows of dependable reproductions. And you don't need an appointment (although the shopkeepers are getting cavalier).

But not everyone's game for that. And there are plenty of entrepreneurs who've caught onto the high(er)-margin opportunity of peddling antiques in sanitised environments.

Although most will tell you those margins aren't so high anymore. J R Jones, who runs one of Kolkata's best known antiques dealerships at Victor Bros, says procurement is dearer because there's much more awareness of value.

"You take what you get," is his grouse. His dalals (agents) are positioned across mainly north Kolkata and Bihar, scouting for ailing palatial homes or cash-strapped zamindari families but funds are perishing.

So are some of the oldest sources of antique furniture  --  the Kolkata Sunday auctions on Russell Street. Today, they have either closed or remain as shadows of their former self, resigned to trading in electronics, second-hand clothes and bad reproductions.

Yet some reputed dealers like Phillips Antiques in Mumbai try not to dilute their credibility with reproductions. "It's rare that I will do one on commission," says Farooq Issa, one of the promoters.

Founded in the year 1860, Phillips is as much a heritage fixture as its stately neighbours the Prince of Wales Museum and Regal cinema. The main showroom  --  its well-housed contents a tad intimidating  --  is where you will have to go to make an appointment to visit its 5,000 sq ft warehouse full of Anglo-Indian and Indo-Portuguese furniture. He quickly adds, "There's nothing wrong with reproductions as long as buyers are aware."

"Sometimes I advise a buyer against a reproduction that might actually be costlier and time-consuming," says Ricky Lamba of The Raj Company, another Mumbai dealership.

A Chinese opium-style bed with three sides and built in cabinets catches the eye. It will sell for well over a lakh rupees. Lamba says beds are the fastest selling category: "Everyone wants at least one fabulous four-poster." He agrees that prices are arbitrary in the absence of official valuation.

But most proprietors (like at The Raj Company or Hally Pacific in Worli) are upfront in pointing out a reproduction. "Most people can't tell; that's where trusting your seller comes in," says Lamba.

At Hally Pacific, cavernous godowns are cram-med, making it hard to ferret things out. A radio belts out a vintage melody leading you to a room where carpenters work away to reproduce time-honoured craftsmanship. Most dealers will hang on to an original piece for long enough to make at least five, if not 15, copies.

And while Mumbai continues to be a bustling supply centre for antiques, Delhi is hobbling along. Through the eighties one was almost spoilt for choice courtesy the crumbling havelis in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Today those the profusely carved dowry chests are rare, and spotted in Delhi's farmhouses paired with more contemporary pieces.

Amar Colony, once a harvest of old furniture shops, has since grown into a mostly-new market where people come fashionably looking for old furniture. You're likely to be more successful at Goel Exports in Shakarpur, if you're prepared to trawl between the wares.

Then there's Shakuntala Farms in Chattarpur with a similar profile but a richer clientele, and Gujarat Haveli on the Jaipur highway where they're reluctant to let you in without an appointment.

Pondicherry and Kochi remain old favourites with furniture enthusiasts looking for the real deal. While in Pondicherry request a visit to Asokan's (of Curio Centre) enormous warehouse  --  150 miles away, quite the Aladdin's cave, packed with old pillars, temple doors and chests.

In fact, Rue Romain Rolland is full of little antique stores peddling mainly curios like the enamel pots and pans and Burmese lacquer boxes and ceremonial textiles from plundered Chettinad homes.

If you have the patience, a rich hunting ground is still Jew Town in Kochi, where the antique shops, as elsewhere, deal more in made-as-olds. But spread the word around that you are interested only in genuine antiques, and hesitantly you will be allowed into private chambers.

"People often mistakenly believe there were no brands of antique furniture in India," says Lamba, "There were actually quite a few well-known English cabinet makers in the early 20th century but their works usually trade privately."

As also the case with the limited work of Lutyens and Baker unlikely to be sold in open trade and often preserved in official government homes.

"Supply will never run out. Besides there is a strong secondary supply market," says Issa, warding off fears of extinction. Lamba agrees, saying there's still enough coming out of Tamil Nadu, Kolkata, Mumbai and Goa to keep them going. "However, Indo-Portuguese furniture coming out of Goa, that has a dedicated audience, is getting a little rare," he says.

Meanwhile the demand only grows. And Jodhpur's young entrepreneurs were quick to catch onto the gold rush. Foreign designers flock there to purchase "country furniture". Usually made of cheap mango wood, these provide the look but not the longevity.

One period of furniture that just about qualifies for antique/vintage but finds no representation here is the influential 1940s rational, modernist style of greats like Charles and Ray Eames, and Arne Jacobsen. But then, there's always eBay.

Arati Menon Carroll