For his latest collection of hand-crafted sound systems, Art Deco Meets 2020, designer Diwik Singh Chhalani delved into childhood memories of growing up in the picturesque Rajasthan town of Bikaner—a town where history, in the form of ornate palaces and havelis, rubs shoulders with the spare, rounded lines of art deco homes from the 20th century and the urban sprawl of modern India. Specifically, Chhalani took inspiration from a haveli that used to stand opposite his childhood home till this year: Kasturi Nivas, the erstwhile home of Rai Bahadur, a companion of maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, was built in 1939 in the art deco style, with its signature geometric architectural flourishes. So, using reclaimed wood from the doors and windows of the torn-down haveli to create 12 unique pieces of his signature sound systems felt fitting.
When we connect on a video call, dusk is falling in Bikaner. The rough, whitewashed walls of the rustic studio from where Chhalani and his team of craftsmen work create a sense of calm, punctuated only by the sound of a hammer striking wood—master craftsman Manoj Suthar, who represents the fifth generation of a family of suthars (traditionally the bulk of artisans in Rajasthan), sits on the floor, working on the ornate outer casing of a Diwiks speaker. Nearby, his colleague Ustad Moinuddin is putting the finishing touches to another piece. Each speaker takes almost a month to make, says Chhalani, and this year they are making only 12.
Chhalani’s obsession with sound design started in 2015, when he was between jobs and started tinkering with his grandfather’s old wooden radio. Dating to the 1960s or 1970s—it was difficult to tell because most of the information printed or engraved on the body had rubbed off, including the make, which was on the broken-off dial—the radio had been unused for over 40 years. Chhalani couldn’t make it work but the design fascinated him. With the help of a carpenter and an electronics expert, he managed to make it work as a speaker. The sound, however, wasn’t great.
This grew into an obsession—over the next year, Chhalani managed to collect more than 25 radios from scrap dealers, antique shops and private homes across Rajasthan, converting an old house in his family’s spinning mills compound in Bikaner into a studio. While he did manage to get some of them to work—he still gets requests from people asking him to fix their old radios—he decided to marry form and function by crafting a set of handmade speakers (they work as FM radios as well) that embody the beauty of the vintage machines as well as modern sound engineering.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled speakers may be a dime a dozen but they all look and sound the same, says Chhalani. “There is a serious dearth of well-designed, good-looking speakers. So I will take the pretty face as a compliment,” he says, a touch testily, when asked if his speakers are merely decorative—they are gorgeous, sure, but do they perform well as high-end sound systems? If Chhalani sounds a bit defensive, it’s because he is often asked this, and he says he has taken pains to ensure the sound passes the audiophile test, even though several of the sound engineers he initially approached said it was “pointless” to try and recreate wooden radios to work as speakers.
Eventually, it was electro-acoustic design consultant Milind Raorane in Mumbai who helped bring his idea to life. “Wood conducts sound beautifully and inside our casing we add another cabinet in MDF (medium-density fibreboard) that is acoustically designed with port tubes, crossovers, etc. We always keep the acoustics in mind and leave room for the electronics to function optimally,” says Chhalani.
Is any part of the design purely decorative? “Are you asking about the four knobs you see?” he enquires. “They all have a function. In fact, we have designed it in such a way that all the controls can be managed by these four knobs, from switching on the system to changing modes from Bluetooth to Aux. And there’s an active tone control with bass and treble, so you can do a lot with that—audiophiles love it.”
“People are taken with the look of our speakers but there’s a lot of technology behind them,” says Chhalani. Each speaker has a stereo set-up delivering two-channel sound through kevlar cone woofers and silk dome tweeters, powered by a class-D amplifier and a toridol transformer for stable power supply.
“People do find us through the art and design world but they are pleasantly surprised by the sound,” says Chhalani. Diwiks speakers, which featured in an exhibition at the GALLERYSKE art gallery in Bengaluru in 2019 and at the India Art Fair 2020, sell through pre-orders and word-of-mouth. Prices start from ₹1.35 lakh.
Can something functional be a work of art as well? Bikaner was once a design hot spot that created objects steeped in this belief, and this is the spirit Diwiks is channelling today.