Glamorous and pleasing, the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s remains a distinct aesthetic of modern architecture. And interestingly enough, a handful of houses in Suva still possess this sophisticated feature and shape today.
One of them is India House, the official residence of India’s High Commissioner to Fiji, located at 72 Prince Rd. The Sunday Times team recently had the rare opportunity to visit the sprawling diplomatic property of three acres courtesy of High Commissioner Palaniswamy Subramanyam Karthigeyan.
At India House, one instantly gets an appreciation for the understated elegance that symbolized the richness and beauty of early 20th century private residences. In the 1920s, Art Deco homes typically featured low roofs, bold exterior decorations, and smooth, rounded-corner stucco walls.
They were also great on glass, mirrors, steps, swirls and curves. At the height of their popularity, they were considered “ultramodern”. “Welcome to India House,” Mr. Karthigeyan’s voice greeted us at the column-supported portico, which is also part of the balcony on the front floor of the house.
One of the striking features of the porch area, where handshakes were exchanged and where I was able to declare “It’s my first time here!”, is a garlanded stone sculpture of the Hindu deity elephant-headed Ganesha. (also called Ganesh) “He is one of the most beloved Hindu gods,” Mr Karthigeyan added.
“He is known as the remover of all obstacles in life.” Ganesha is usually portrayed as a pot-bellied being, holding Indian sweets which he is thought to like. His vehicle is usually a large Indian bandicoot rat, symbolizing his ability to conquer.
According to documents from the National Archives of Fiji, the land on which India House stands was purchased from the Crown by the Government of India in 1965. Other available literature suggests that the house may have been built in the 1930s by Robert Crompton, a very successful and wealthy man. British lawyer and politician who settled in Fiji in 1904.
The January 1959 issue of Pacific Islands Monthly describes him as one of the four most influential men in Suva at the turn of the 20th century. “He has played a prominent role in public life and his family has become deeply integrated into the European Fijian community,” PIM said.
Crompton was closely associated in business with the early Suva tycoons, Sir Henry Marks and Sir Maynard Hedstrom, the other members of the elite “Big Four” who were literally the “business, legal and political oligarchs” of Fiji.
In 1914, Crompton ran unopposed and was elected to the Legislative Council of Fiji. He was appointed CBE the following year for raising funds and troops to support British efforts in the First World War.
Unopposed in the 1917 elections, he returned to the LC. In 1924 he became a King’s Counsel and later formed a legal partnership with his son Hollins as Cromptons. He also served on the Executive Council in 1934 and again in 1941, and was the last of the “Big Four” to die in 1959.
Judging from the available literature on Crompton and his association with the “Big Four”, one could easily infer that he was wealthy and privileged. It could also be inferred that regardless of the identity of the builder or former owners of India House, it must have been occupied by someone who was wealthy and famous, and who appreciated the high-end architectural style of the time.
Nevertheless, today a unique feature of Indian House is its representation of the uniqueness of the Indian subcontinent and its diverse culture and traditions which have all developed over thousands of years.
From religion and art to food and architecture, India, as I have discovered, exudes incredible diversity and wonder and these are delicately expressed at home. India House is nestled in a large uncluttered garden, accented by large shady trees, fruit plants, flowers and beautiful greenery.
The hill on which it is perched offers a magnificent view of the Suva peninsula. The sun could be seen rising on the eastern horizon and following it to the balcony as it set behind the hills to the west, beyond Suva Bay. It was purchased by the Indian government in the 1960s, named India House and became the residence of the Indian government representative in Fiji.
For many Fijians of Indian descent who lived in Fiji during the 1960s and early years after independence, India House held a special meaning in their hearts. It reminded them of the great country of India and conveyed an image of hope, power and unity.
Seeing the Indian flag flying on the pole in the foreground of the house instilled a sense of deep pride in people’s hearts and minds. Mr. Karthigeyan described India House beautifully when he said, “It’s a little piece of India in Suva.”
“We have the advantage of seeing the best sunsets and sunrises and clear blue skies that you won’t see anywhere else. It is indeed a charming place with a beautiful space and with lots of greenery.”
It is said that Abdul Lateef, a lawyer who worked as a legal assistant for Crompton (and the founder of the law firm Lateef & Lateef) became very emotional during his first visit to India House. “I was never allowed into his (Crompton) house.
Now I am proud to be welcomed here as a guest of honour,” said former Indian High Commissioner to Fiji (2005-2007), Ajay Singh, quoting Lateef in the book, Fiji: A Love Story (Memoirs of an unconventional diplomat).
“It shows how much our world has changed. Seeing the Indian flag flying over Indian House fills us with a deep sense of pride,” Lateef continued. As an employee of Cromptons, he handed over legal files to the solicitor on several occasions, but never had the chance to enter the house. Crompton would always meet Lateef on the porch and fire him.
Lateef, who started as a law clerk at Cromptons in 1947, would later become a partner in the law firm. India House, like other similar diplomatic residences, embodies the best of both worlds – the old and the new, but more than that.
Its interior decor, including colors, artifacts, collection of furniture and decorations, is not intended simply to serve as features in a family home, but a bold unspoken statement of the country the family comes from.
Curtains and paintings are not only there to please the people who live in the house, but also to say something about the country they represent. Like a kind of mini-museum, it tells a lot about India and its past, and represents knowledge and skills refined and passed down through countless generations.
I realized that handmade sofas and rugs weren’t just things to sit and stand on – they were things to talk about and admire and were made from the best materials to withstand the wear and tear of India House’s many visitors each year; I am one of the 2022 alumni.
The art and furnishings complement the age of India House and enhance its architectural style. “It’s tanjore art,” Mr. Karthigeyan pointed to a traditional artwork that hangs on the white wall between long casement windows that bow at the rounded corners of the house.
We had just left the lobby where another Ganesha display seemed prominent in advanced brass, when the gold art tickled my imagination. The work depicts the story of Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha Kingdo, talking to a divine swan, who told her about Nala, the king of Nishada.
This story has been told in many Hindu scriptures including the Mahabharat. Tanjore art, famous for its bold gold designs, is a popular form of Indian art that originated in southern India in the 16th century, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The painting form uses gold and precious or semi-precious stones to accentuate the designs which usually illustrate a story around deities and events told in famous Hindu epics. In the past, tanjore paintings were placed in dark temple shrines and the use of gold enhanced their presence.
There were a number of other works of art, figurines and paintings which were on distinct display in India House, including a display case with memorabilia from Mr Karthigeyan’s stays in different parts of the world. Mr. Karthigeyan spoke the longest about the painting of Vellore Fort.
“Vellore Fort is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tamil Naidu,” he explained, “it is surrounded by a moat and was once infested with crocodiles.” I discovered that Vellore Fort was a large 16th century fort located in the heart of the city of Vellore in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.
The ditch actually contained around 10,000 crocodiles. It was built by the Vijayanagara kings and was at one time the seat of the Aravidu dynasty of the Vijayanagara empire. The fort is known for its large ramparts, wide moats and sturdy masonry, features that made it impregnable during attacks.
It was under British control in 1760 and was the center of a mutiny in 1806. According to Fiji: A Love Story (Memoirs of an Unconventional Diplomat) Indian House in the early 1970s was an “open house , warmly welcoming to all , whether for formal dinners and receptions or women’s organizations engaged in charity work.
The wife of the then Indian High Commissioner, Bhagwan Singh, was engaged in many voluntary activities that involved empowering women and disadvantaged people in Fiji. She became the patron of the Poor Relief Society, the Stree Sewa Sabha and the Sikh Women’s Association of Fiji.
She supported the Mahila Mandal, the women’s wing of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji, helped the Young Women’s Christian Association and the International Women’s Association. She even took the initiative to raise funds to buy an audiometer for the school for disabled children at the time.
As the people of India commemorate their Independence Day tomorrow, August 15, a small crowd will gather at the elegant India House to witness the hoisting of the Indian flag and later take part in a festive evening reception.
They will join billions of people around the world in pompous celebrations, feasting, dancing and singing Jana Gana Mana (national anthem). Knowing a bit more about India now, thanks to my visit to Indian House, I will definitely think of them, and even have a spicy dish of something and say “Happy Independence Day and may you continue to be part of a dynamic and strong nation that you are!
Part 2 next week