City Life – Three Chair Makers, Central Delhi
A fading profession.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
They are sitting on the floor, not on chairs, even though they are professional chair makers. The three gents are weaving cane chairs this icy afternoon in a central Delhi neighbourhood. Commissioned by an adjacent household, they have been at work since morning.
“We have been tasked with making six chairs,” says one of them.
Occasional passersby throw curious glances. Maybe because it’s not common to see chairs being woven by hand. “
True,” agrees the same man. “These days, people buy ready-made kursi.”
The men are brothers. At 41, Janak Songh is the youngest (and quietest), and Nathi Lal (60) is the eldest. Adal Singh (56) is doing all the talking. Exuding a friendly, easy-going temperament, his smile is endearing. The chair he is working on is almost finished.
“The bunai (weaving) has to be strong and maheen (delicate),” Adal Singh says, his eyes contracting behind his glasses as he concentrates on the “cane” of the slip seat.
The brothers live in the same locality (Kalyanpuri), but in separate houses. They mostly work as a team and commute to the site of the day in their respective bicycles. Each one’s wife packs a lunch box for each. “But we eat together, sharing one another’s subzi.”
The brothers inherited the career from their father, the late Jyoti Prasad, who arrived in Delhi some 60 years back. A farmer’s son in Uttar Pradesh, he grabbed the first job he found in the city — as a chair weaver in a furniture shop in Lajpat Nagar. His young sons joined him from the village some years later. “We learned (the art of) bunai from our father,” says Adal Singh.
Today, the brothers have 10 children in all. The new generation will not carry forward the legacy. “Our children are studying, they want to do office jobs. They haven’t learned bunai.” Pausing momentarily, Adal Singh explains: “Office work is simpler. You leave home at a fixed time in the morning and come back at a fixed time in the evening… our line is full of hard work, and everyday we have to go to different places, wherever the work is.”
The next day the men are sighted at work on the same spot. “We will finish all the chairs today,” says Adal Singh, as he poses for a portrait with his two brothers. The eldest — “bhaisaheb” — is made to sit on a completed chair out of reverence for his seniority.
Meet the chairmen