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The Majjus of the The South Asia Collection, Norwich

Ben Cartwright, Curator at The South Asia Collection in Norwich, steps into the HODs spotlight to tell us about his treasure, a mysterious 'majjus' from Western India.

© Jake Mann - A majjus from the South Asian Collection, Norwich.

Tell us about your treasure

This is a majjus, a chest on legs used for storing food. The majjus is a piece of traditional day-to-day domestic furniture from India, crafted by local craftspeople from local materials; what we refer to as 'vernacular furniture'. This one is from Saurashtra in Gujarat, north western India. The realistic carving of the horse heads in the horizontal on the toprail, the splay of the legs, all are definitive features of majjus from Saurashtra.

At the South Asia Collection, Norwich, we have an important collection of vernacular furniture from north west India like this majjus, including chests, tables, dowry pieces, chairs and cradles. Unfortunately there is little information available on these finely carved items. Our records are often a single sentence provided by the person who owned or sold the piece.

Why do you treasure this majjus?

Side of a majjus, © Jake Mann

As homes in north west India are modernised, this furniture has fallen out of fashion and is being increasingly discarded. The stories bound up in their use and manufacture are in danger of being lost. Academics too, are creatures of fashion, and there has been little or no research into these incredible objects.

That has now changed. From December last year the Trust managing the South Asia Collection has been collaborating with Design Innovation and Craft Resource Center (DICRC), CEPT University, Ahmedabad, on a project researching vernacular furniture in north west India, starting with the state of Gujarat.

Our current exhibition displays our collection of Vernacular Furniture, as well telling the experiences of our research team as they head out to search for pieces of this furniture in the cities, towns, and villages of Gujarat. The results are astounding and cover sangeriyu (furniture made from mud and dung then decorated like textile embroideries, which are found in circular mud huts in the desert in Kutch), to the ladi paatlo  (a small painted stool from the Rathawa tribal lands – a new bride has to step over this stool before entering the house of the groom) through to the courtly palace furniture of Saurashtra.

These long neglected pieces of vernacular furniture are a good example of what the South Asia Collection does so well. The displays focus on craft objects (textiles, furniture, wood and metal work) that other museums in this country ignore. The South Asia Collection also has a very important art collection of paintings and prints from South Asia dating from 1736 to the present day. This collection includes contemporary tribal paintings, 18th and 19th century British artists in India, paintings by historic artists from India, through to Ravi Varma's lithographs and so much more!

The South Asian Collection, © Jake Mann

What can Hertiage Open Days visitors get excited about this September?

Vistors can explore our collection of around 5000 objects and artworks from all over South Asia and learn more in special tallks and tours. Highlights from the Collection are exhibited in regularly changing displays, including a dedicated art gallery. Our current exhibitions include: Vernacular Furniture, Hearth and Home, Fraser's India, Watercolour: Painting a Continent, Cabinet of Curiosity, Recent Acquisitions and Pabuji. 

The gallery and shop is housed in a magnificent restored Victorian roller skating rink with a complex mathematical roof (it was once used in a GCSE revision book!). Ornately carved pieces of wooden vernacular architecture (balconies, door arches, pillars and large doors) have been transported from regions such as the Punjab and Gujarat, and combined with the fabric of the building. It is a magical place, and the exhibition rooms and cases sit alongside rugs, textiles, furniture, decorative objects and artworks from the artisans that we know in South Asia.

The South Asia Collection will open from Thursday 8th through to Saturday 10th September. For full details click here.

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