Tell-tale Beds: Translocal Practices and Transcultural Negotiations in Early Modern Malabar

Conference Abstract: 2014 University of Chicago South Asia Graduate Students Conference

Furniture, such as beds, chairs, and various forms of cabinetry, has had a long history of production in South India and was custom-manufactured for export or use by Europeans.[1] In mid-to-late 18th century, two beds of carved wood were commissioned on the Malabar Coast of South India. In the 1740s, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) gifted one of them to Maharaja Marthanda Varma, ruler of Travancore. The other was exported to Portugal in the 1770s, and used by the Queen’s Secretary at the Royal Palace in Lisbon. Stylistically similar, the beds, in their carvings, combined Indian motifs and European subject matter. Such visual hybridization made the beds, at once, familiar and foreign to both Indians and Europeans. Thus, while the state bed of Marthanda Varma was a valued ‘European’ gift, the bed at Lisbon Palace was considered an exotic ‘Indian’ object.

In this paper I analyze the style and structure of the two beds, examining both South Indian and European artistic traditions displayed. By tracing South Indian stylistic motifs and techniques, I argue that artistic practice in the early modern period in South India was spatiotemporally porous; that is, across borders and communities, there existed in the post-Vijayanagara period, complex yet common visual traditions, made possible due to movement of craftspeople and creative adaptation of artistic techniques. Simultaneously, I trace European subject matter represented on these beds, along with an examination of the sociopolitical contexts within which these luxury objects were used. Employing these data, I exhibit that the hybridized style of manufacture of these beds as well as, the perception of these beds as high quality luxury goods in both India and Europe, suggest a commensurability of taste in early modern Eurasia. In doing so, I claim that dynamic encounters in early modern South Asia, developed a visual palette, that was able to convey both familiarity and foreignness to both Indian and European consumers. Finally, I argue that, in making use of this visual palette, the beds are evidence of translocal artistic encounters in early modern South India, and, were powerful interlocutors in transcultural negotiations between groups of Indians and Europeans in this period.


[1] Amin Jaffer, “Life in Early British India,” in Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and Peabody Essex Museum, ed. Amin Jaffer et al. (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2001), 14.