Pierre Jeanneret (left) and Le Corbusier, Chandigarh, 1955 (Photo: Getty Images)
A FEW YEARS ago in Chandigarh, Ajay Jagga turned the pages of his newspaper one morning and almost stumbled in astonishment. An article carried the news of a Christie’s auction in New York, where a manhole cover from Chandigarh had gone for $21,600 (nearly Rs 15.5 lakh today).
This wasn’t any manhole cover. It was a cast-iron piece, depicting over it the map of the city as drawn by its famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. In Chandigarh, this item was far from exceptional. “How could it be?” Jagga, a lawyer and activist based there, says over the phone today. “There are thousands of these lying all across the city.” Even today, although many of these manhole covers have been stolen and presumably smuggled out of the country, there are still more than 2,000 in its streets, in use.
This wasn’t going to be a solitary affair, and it wasn’t going to be restricted to just manhole covers. Jagga, along with the rest of Chandigarh, was just beginning to wake up to the news. By the 2000s, all sorts of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh memorabilia from manhole covers to letters, and more importantly furniture, were beginning to appear in the brochures of some of the world’s biggest auction houses.
Chairs, tables, desks and all sorts of furniture—designed by Le Corbusier and his team for Chandigarh’s government offices and often referred to in the city’s streets as ‘Corbusier furniture’, most of which by the 2000s had already worn out, gotten broken and in many cases dumped as trash at scrapyards—were now being featured in international glossies and acquired for phenomenal sums by wealthy businessmen and celebrities (Kourtney Kardashian is rumored to have 12). By 2017, referring to famous V leg-shaped chairs from Chandigarh, French designer Joseph Dirand was telling the Hindustan Times, “It’s so simple, so minimal, so strong. Put one in a room and it becomes a sculpture.”
A majority of the ‘Corbusier chairs’, as Sangeeta Bagga, the principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture, points out, weren’t in fact designed by Le Corbusier. Most of these pieces were designed by Le Corbusier’s equally famous cousin and colleague, Pierre Jeanneret, and the French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand.
Le Corbusier, a giant of 20th century architecture, came to India along with Jeanneret and Perriand in the 1950s, upon the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru. India’s first Prime Minister wanted the famous architect, since Lahore had been lost to Pakistan in the Partition, to design and conceive of what would become Chandigarh. But while Le Corbusier was the chief architect of the project, visiting the city, it is said, twice every year, the task of executing his plans fell upon Jeanneret. Jeanneret continued to live on in Chandigarh, long after Le Corbusier had left, working in the city as an architect and advisor to the state government and as Chandigarh College of Architecture’s first principal, right up to 1965.
Jeanneret and Perriand, Bagga points out, designed the furniture in their spare time. Most of their days and nights were taken up in the building of the city. “Time was very crucial. Jeanneret wanted to build [furniture] pieces that could be quickly made by local carpenters [from Punjab]. The two most important questions were—how quickly and how many [can be built]?” she says. “You have to remember, they were building all these spaces and they needed furniture for them.”
Several versions of even the most basic furniture, like chairs and desks, were made. It weren’t just these pieces. Attention was lavished on everything from the buildings, the sectors in which they were to come up, manhole covers, lamp-posts, municipal light fixtures to even, according to the New York Times, pedal-boats in the artificial lake at the heart of the city.
Chairs, tables, desks and all sorts of furniture designed by Le Corbusier and his team for Chandigarh’s government offices, and often referred to in the city’s streets as ‘Corbusier furniture’, featured in international glossies in the 2000s and were acquired for phenomenal sums by wealthy businessmen and celebrities
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From a design perspective, Bagga describes the furniture pieces as beautiful and extremely comfortable, with a perfect marriage of function and form. “They did not look at furniture in isolation,” she says. It was designed as a part of a larger whole.
Unlike the British, who brought with them to India furniture pieces like warm, upholstered sofas, Jeanneret and Perriand embraced local materials and kept in mind local conditions. The pieces were thus, as Bagga points out, comfortable, easy to use and made of materials like teak and cane weaves.
Many of these pieces were also ones that could be easily dismantled. According to Bagga, this is not only because they were being made for government employees with transferrable jobs, but also because a lot of the designers on the project were working out of what they thought was going to serve as the temporary premises of their office. “It could all be packed up and taken to the next location,” she says.
By 2000, however, many of these pieces had been replaced and discarded. The city had been sitting on a pot of gold, Jagga says, without having realised it.
The treasure came to be discovered sometime around 1999. According to Jagga, a French art dealer, Eric Touchaleaume, who had visited the city earlier as part of an official delegation, returned later on his own and began to pick up these furniture pieces from offices and scrapyards.
A former librarian at the Central Library in Punjab, who requested anonymity, claims many pieces from the library were auctioned upon request, where Touchaleaume, for very small sums, acquired many of these pieces. “He went around offices and institutions offering to replace the old furniture with new Godrej pieces,” Jagga says.
In all, according to Jagga, Touchaleaume purchased over 500 pieces for around Rs 2.5 lakh. More dealers followed him. “We were made fools. We didn’t know its value. And our heritage was taken away in broad daylight,” he says.
These purchases by dealers weren’t necessarily illegal. Many of them were purchased either through auctions or from the scrapyard. Jagga however points out that the dealers were in India in all likelihood on a tourist visa, making these purchases, if done on such a visa, illegal. Touchaleaume told NYT several years ago, that many of the pieces he purchased were so neglected that they were being chopped up for firewood. “I always paid on average 100 times more than what the local dealers were offering,” he was reported as saying.
Unlike the British, who brought with them to India furniture pieces like upholstered sofas, Jeanneret and Perriand embraced local materials
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Since then, several attempts have been unsuccessfully made to stop these auctions. The city has also become more vigilant. An inventory of the furniture present in the city has been made (around 12,000 pieces of which 800 are broken). Jagga, now a member of the city’s heritage protection cell, who in 2010 filed a PIL in the state high court to push the city administration to be more vigilant, has played a role here. Collectors could easily take these objects out of the country in the past since India’s export rules classify only objects more than 100 years old as antiques. An attempt to categorise these pieces as art treasure was mooted. But, according to Jagga, in 2011, the home ministry issued a notification which has now made the sale of these pieces illegal.
The owner of a well-known store in Mumbai that sells antiques, and which until a few years ago also sold these pieces, claims he has stopped dealing in them. “It’s just become so controversial. And I didn’t want that. And besides,” he says, “when you are buying them, you are really buying reproductions. You won’t get originals anymore.”
Bagga laughs as she talks about the huge amounts of money being spent to acquire these pieces. “I think Jeanneret would turn in his grave if he heard all this,” she says.
Jeanneret’s aim when he was designing these pieces, she explains, was to build quick, easy to replicate and inexpensive furniture for a new city. She also points out how difficult it is to say which piece is an original and which a reproduction. “They were meant to be reproduced. There is no one original. Different craftsmen were making all these pieces and so many versions of each type [of piece]. Who is to decide between the original and copy?”
“This is all hype,” she says. “If you ask me, some smart people abroad saw these nice pieces and made up a very nice story.”
Despite the attempts made by the government, Jagga fears, the pieces are still in danger. His fears were proven correct when in December last year, 14 chairs, later found to be belonging to Panjab University, were seized at the Delhi airport. They were, according to Jagga, being shipped to Belgium.
There is now a palpable paranoia in the state administration about the future of the remaining pieces. According to a new idea being discussed, all the 12,000-odd pieces, both those which are in use in different buildings and those broken, will be moved to a single building. A few of these could be exhibited in a small museum, according to the plan, while the rest of them could be kept in the same building. “Maybe that will work,” Jagga says.