The diversity and elegance of India House
14 August, 2022, 9:00 pm
Glamorous and pleasing, the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s Gremains a distinguishable aesthetic of modern architecture. And it is quite interesting to note that a handful of homes in Suva today still possess that sophisticated characteristic and form.
One of them is India House, the official residence of the High Commissioner of India in Fiji, located on 72 Prince Rd. The Sunday Times team recently got the rare chance to tour the sprawling threeacre diplomatic property with the kind consent of High Commissioner, Palaniswamy Subramanyam Karthigeyan.
At India House, one instantaneously gets an appreciation of the sleek elegance that symbolized affluence and the beauty of early 20th century private residences. In the 1920s, Art Deco homes commonly featured low roofs, bold exterior decorations and walls made of smooth stucco and rounded corners.
They were also big on glass, mirrors, steps, swirls and curves. At the peak of their popularity, they were considered ‘ultramodern’. “Welcome to India House,” the voice of Mr Karthigeyan greeted us at the columnsupported portico, which also forms part of the home’s front upstairs balcony.
One of the striking features of the porch area, where handshakes were exchanged and I got to declare “This is my first time here!”, is a garlanded stone carving of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha. (also called Ganesh) “He is one of the most favoured of Hindu gods,” Mr Karthigeyan added.
“He is known as the remover of all obstacles in life.” Ganesha is commonly portrayed as a potbellied being, holding Indian sweets which he is believed to be fond of. His vehicle is usually a large Indian bandicoot rat, symbolising his ability to overcome.
According to National Archives of Fiji documents, the land on which India House sits was bought from the Crown by the Government of India in 1965. Another available literature suggests the house may have been constructed in the 1930s by Robert Crompton, a very successful and wealthy British lawyer and political figure who settled in Fiji in 1904.
The January 1959 issue of the Pacific Islands Monthly described him as one of Suva’s four most influential men in the early 20th century. “He took a prominent part in public life and his family became deeply integrated with the Fiji European community,” PIM said.
Crompton was closely associated in business with early Suva’s moguls, Sir Henry Marks and Sir Maynard Hedstrom, the other members of the elite ‘Big Four’ who were literally Fiji’s ‘commercial, legal and political oligarchs’.
In 1914, Crompton ran unopposed and was elected to Fiji’s Legislative Council. He was made a CBE the following year for raising funds and contingents to support Britain’s WWI efforts.
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 under the name Cromptons. He served on the Executive Council too in 1934 and again in 1941, and was the last of the “Big Four” to pass away in 1959.
Judging by available literature on Crompton and his association with the ‘Big Four’, one could easily deduce he was wealthy and privileged. One could also infer that regardless of the identity of India House’s builder or former owner(s) it must have been occupied by someone with wealth and reputation, and appreciative of the high-end architectural style of the time.
Nevertheless, today, one unique feature about Indian House is its portrayal of the uniqueness of the Indian sub-continent and its diverse culture and tradition all of which have developed over thousands of years.
From religion and art to food and architecture, India, as I found out, exudes incredible diversity and wonder and these are delicately expressed at the home. India House is nestled in a large uncluttered garden, accentuated by towering shadegiving trees, fruit plants, flowers and lovely greenery.
The hill that it is perched on enjoys wonderful views of the Suva peninsula. One could see the sun rise on the eastern horizon and follow it to the balcony as it sets behind the hills in 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’s representative in Fiji.
For many Fijians of Indian descent that lived in Fiji during the 1960s and the early years after independence, India House had a special significance in their hearts. It reminded them of the great country of India and it expressed an image of hope, power and unity.
Seeing the Indian flag fluttering on the pole in the home’s foreground sure instilled a sense of deep pride in people’s hearts and mind. Mr Karthigeyan described India House beautifully when he said: “It is a little piece of India in Suva.”
“We have the advantage of seeing the best sunset and sunrise and clear blue skies you won’t see anywhere else. It is indeed a lovely location with a beautiful space and with lots of greenery.”
It is said that Abdul Lateef, a lawyer who used to work as a law clerk for Crompton (and the founder of the law firm Lateef & Lateef) turned very emotional when he first visited India House. “I was never allowed into his (Crompton) house.
Now I am proud to be welcomed here as an honoured guest,” former Indian High Commissioner to Fiji (2005-2007), Ajay Singh quoted Lateef as saying in the book, Fiji: A Love Story (Memoirs of an Unconventional Diplomat).
“It shows how our world has changed. To see the India flag flying on Indian House fills us with a deep sense of pride,” Lateef continued. As an employee of Cromptons he delivered legal files to the lawyer on many occasions but never got the chance to enter the house. Crompton would always meet Lateef at the porch and dismiss 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, epitomises the best of two worlds – the old and new, but more than just that.
Its interior décor, including colours, artefacts, furniture collection and decorations are not merely intended to serve as items in a family abode but a bold unspoken statement of the country the family comes from.
The curtains and the pictures are not there just to please the people who live in the house, but also to say something about the country they represent. Like a mini museum of sorts, it says a lot about India and its past, and represents knowledge and skills refined and passed down through countless generations.
I realised the sofas and hand-made carpets were not 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 of India House’s many visitors each year; I being part of the 2022 ‘alumni’.
The art and furnishings complement the age of India House and enhance its architectural style. “That’s a tanjore art,” Mr Karthigeyan pointed to a piece of traditional art that hung on the white wall between long casement windows that become bow at the home’s rounded corners.
We had just left the foyer where another display of Ganesha looked prominent in advanced brass, when the golden art tickled my fancy. The artwork portrayed 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 narrated in many Hindu scriptures, including the Mahabharat. Tanjore art, famous for its bold gold drawings, is a popular form of Indian artwork that started in Southern India in the 16th century, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The form of painting uses gold and precious or semi-precious stones to accentuate designs which usually illustrate a story around deities and events told in famous Hindu epics. In olden days, tanjore paintings were placed in dark temple shrines and the use of gold enhanced their presence.
There were a number of other artwork, figurines and paintings that were displayed distinctly in India House, including a glass case with mementos of Mr Karthigeyan’s stints in different parts of the world. Mr Karthigeyan spoke the longest on the painting of Vellore Fort.
“The Vellore Fort is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tamil Naidu,” he explained, “It is surrounded by a moat and used to be infested by crocodiles.” I found out that Vellore Fort was a large 16th-century fort situated in the heart of the Vellore city, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.
The moat actually contained around 10,000 crocodiles. It was built by Vijayanagara kings and was at one time the headquarters of the Aravidu Dynasty of the Vijayanagara Empire. The fort is known for its grand ramparts, wide moat and robust masonry, features that made it impregnable during attacks.
It was under the control of the British in 1760 and was the centre 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 reception’ or for ladies’ organisations engaged in charity work.
The wife of the then Indian High Commissioner, Bhagwan Singh, was engaged in a lot of volunteer work that involved empowering women and the disadvantaged 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 ladies 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 lead in raising funds to procure an audiometer for the then Crippled Children’s School.
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 be part of a celebratory evening reception.
They will join billions worldwide in pompous celebration, feasting, dancing and singing Jana Gana Mana (national anthem). Knowing a little bit more about India now, thanks to my visit to Indian House, I sure will be thinking of them, and even have a spicy dish of something and say “Happy Independence Day and may you continue to be part of a vibrant and strong nation, which you are!”
Part 2 Next Week