“Indian Summers” Décor

By Karen Parr-Moody


Spices, jewels and textiles once made India the jewel in the British Empire’s crown, yet by 1932 the country was slipping from Britain’s grasp. It is at this pivotal moment – on the precipice of India’s achieving self-rule in 1948 – that the new Masterpiece series, “Indian Summers,” opens.


The series’ luscious setting is that of Simla, a Himalayan hill station to which the British Civil Service once escaped during the summer, as members were unwilling to withstand the searing heat and monsoon rains of Calcutta and Delhi. But these ruling Brits create their own steam through drama in Simla’s hills.


“Indian Summers” aired throughout the fall season on Nashville Public Television every Sunday at 8 p.m.; the season finale was Nov. 22 (photo, right: the cast). The series can also be purchased as DVD sets at www.shoppbs.org and some episodes can be watched, free of charge, at www.pbs.org.


Like another Masterpiece period drama, “Downton Abbey,” the series appears first in Britain, where it has been a runaway hit. “The Guardian” calls this new series “the stuff of which epics are made ... one of the most gorgeous, exciting shows around.”

In addition to delivering powerful storylines, “Indian Summers” is a feast for the eyes – particularly for viewers who adore the British Colonial style of home décor, a melding of native and British styles.

Here in Nashville, at GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall and its sister store, GasLamp Too, one can perform an “Indian Summers” treasure hunt of sorts to imbue one’s rooms with British Colonial flair. This mélange of subtropical cues and English roots comingles lush houseplants with English china, light-colored rattan with dark teak, exotic motifs with upper-crust prints … and so much more.


One can imagine India was once peppered with royal portraits brought over by British civil servants. Indians had been ruled by Britain since 1858, when Queen Victoria was still firmly on the throne, so the wonderful engraving in the photo, left, of Queen Victoria is apropos. It is currently on view at GasLamp Too Booth T-134 (Prince Albert's engraving, also included, is not shown here; $85 for the framed pair).


In fact, a public portrait of Queen Victoria plays a key role in the “Indian Summers” debut episode. The series dives headlong into India’s political unrest as one character scrawls the cry for home rule, “Inquilab Zindabad” – “Long Live the Revolution” – in red paint over a public portrait of Queen Victoria.


The antique Queen Victoria engraving currently at GasLamp Too was originally published in The Art Journal in 1878. It represents an uncanny historic relation to “Indian Summers” as it has its origins in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. It depicts a marble statue that sculptor Matthew Noble made of Queen Victoria; it was unveiled in the botanical gardens of India in 1872. While India was already under crown control at the time of the statue’s unveiling, Queen Victoria wasn't declared Empress of India until 1877 by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. The statue depicts her majesty attired in her robes of state, which include the Collar and Star of India. Such visuals were part of an effort to endear her to the Indian people.


As “Indian Summers” unfolds, it depicts Simla as a veritable Garden of Eden whose colonial buildings were surrounded by curvaceous hills and sweeping verandas. Materials such as wicker and rattan – with their light, yet sturdy, properties – were perfect for the verandas of India’s warmer climes, as caning was cooler than heavy English upholstery. Such items were also used in that country’s sun-drenched inner rooms and are seen throughout “Indian Summers.”


This gorgeous rattan and bamboo chaise, photo right, is a French antique, likely from the early 1900s ($1,750, T-108). It could easily lend an air of British Colonial style to one’s home. Both the cane work and frame are beautifully handcrafted.


The photo, left, features a blend of items crafted from light woods – bamboo and rattan – that would fit into the style of British Colonial. The chair ($185), in bamboo, pairs well with the larger, hand-woven basket with a leather strap ($168) and the antique rice basket ($49; all items at Booth T-702). To inspire a British Colonial mood, it is key to use such materials in one’s side tables, coffee tables and chairs.


The colonial verandas of India brought the outdoors inside and included an assortment of plants, such as orchids and palms. Naturally, such flora begged for high-end planters to decorate them according to the fine tastes of the British upper class. This planter, in the photo at right, is a nickel-plated lobby urn comprised of two pieces ($750). It is the pièce de résistance for British Colonial décor – it looks like it could be a prop for “Indian Summers.”


During the opening scenes of “Indian Summers,” we see a bevy of Indian servants snaking up a jungle path, carrying the belongings of the British civil servants above their heads. It’s a scene that says nothing, but tells everything. Like the servants of "Downton Abbey," India’s lower class are consigned to caring for the upper classes’ finer things.


In these scenes, servants largely use woven baskets to carry the Brits’ possessions to their summer homes in Simla. But steamer trunks were another type of baggage that went to such far-flung imperial lands during the 1930s. From this practicality evolved a style that was used in the colonies, as well as in homes today: trunks that serve double-duty as side tables with the added benefit of storage (photo, left: Vermont trunk with metal base, $225; Booth T-702).


The timeless look of British Colonial style can be dressed up or dressed down. Add a carved maharaja chair to get glamorous, or keep it easy with wicker. Regardless of how the look is accomplished, it will inspire dreams of travel and the warmth of the tropics.


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