Year-End Special: The secret of Bhuj
Ramanik Bhai of Bhuj salvages old wood and celebrates elaborate techniques of restoration
In the spartan landscape of Kutch, Gujarat, is a village called Mirjapur. Ramanik K. Shah’s workshop is probably its most popular landmark. There is no signage, yet you can walk into Mirjapur without an address in hand, and you will be pointed to “Ramanik Bhai", who retails and restores antique furniture and artefacts. On any given day, foreign collectors from Australia, Italy, Holland and the UK can be found making their way to his workshop. This is apart from his regular clientele from Mumbai, Vadodara, Pune and Gandhidham.
His warehouse has furniture from different periods and in myriad styles coexisting. There are Gothic-style cupboards, Victorian chairs, antique doors, four-poster beds, brass objects sharing space with antique money boxes, art deco chandeliers, Chinese glass paintings, and more.
Shah, who turned 70 this August, has been in the field of antiques and handicrafts for 40 years. “At one point, I used to work with textiles, particularly with block printing. My shop, Kutch Handicrafts, was one of the oldest in the region, and my clientele hailed from 30 countries," he says. “At the same time, the craft and process of reproducing and restoring antique furniture also interested me. So, I started this workshop in Mirjapur nearly 26 years ago."
His speciality lies in the use of natural polish and old wood. “Most people these days use lacquer or melamine, which is more of a lamination than a polish. It will surely come out after 12 months," says Shah. His brand of polish is made with spirit and shellac, made naturally. There are very few manufacturers of the latter and he sources his batch from Bengal.
The technique he uses is akin to French polishing, a process which rose to prominence in the 18th century and involves applying many thin coats of shellac dissolved in spirit. The process was so labour-intensive that craftsmen abandoned the technique for the quicker spray finishing. Shah, however, has stayed with these age-old methods. “It takes four-five days for one piece to be polished, with three-four coats being applied at least. One karigar sits with six-seven pieces, coating one, leaving it to dry, and then starting on the other. This rotation makes the process smooth," explains Shah.
He only uses old wood, sourcing it from old houses in and around Kutch, and other parts of Gujarat. “Most of the houses in the region are 80-100 years old. They have wood in the beams and pillars. Whenever these houses break, people call me. I have found beautiful sagwan or Burma teak, and wood from Kerala," he says.
His philosophy finds favour with Chiki Doshi of the House of Mahendra Doshi in Mumbai—purveyors of fine antiques, period furniture, quality reproductions and collectibles since 1974. “We have such a rich heritage of beautiful Burma teak from the 1920s," he says. A rich source of sagwan is the mills in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, whose beams were made of pure Burma teak. The wood was often mindlessly painted over the years, but in some ways this gross misuse protected the wood within from the external elements. “We have a wonderful wood bank, with material sourced from these mills during their demolition," he says. While it’s a chore to get the paint out, it’s well worth the effort, Shah adds, because “the natural polish doesn’t work well with new wood. The old pucca wood has beautiful grains. Woh polish se nikhar ke aate hain (polish highlights it beautifully)."
It is this attention to detail that appeals to his clientele. “He won’t touch a piece till he gets the right material," says Pestonji Bhujwala, who owns one of the oldest houses in Bhuj. The Bhuj House, as it is known, was built in 1894 in the Camp area, by his ancestor Pestonji Sorabji Bhujwala, who also constructed Kutch’s only Parsi agiary in 1905.
It is to preserve this legacy that Bhujwala decided to fully restore the house, including the furniture within, and convert it into a niche bed-and-breakfast. He enlisted Shah’s help. “We had furniture from the early 1900s. Some of the pieces had been made in Kutch itself and featured beautiful inlaid work. The furniture had taken a beating over the years and gotten damaged during the 2001 earthquake. But Ramanik Bhai restored the pieces to their former glory," says Bhujwala. Especially significant was the restoration of the Chesterfield sofas, which had suffered a bad fall during the 2001 quake. “He replaced it with the correct wood, and did it so well that the replacement doesn’t show at all," he says.
His views are shared by Hemant Rajaram, a doctor, who moved from Bhuj to Bengaluru after the earthquake. He had a lot of period furniture, gifted by Parsi families to his parents, who were also doctors. “I have had so many pieces restored by Ramanik Bhai. There was a ‘showcase’, in which the glass was broken and ply had been added over time. Ramanik Bhai removed all the ply, added teak and put in glass from that period," he says. “Such is his popularity that people from all over the world come to Kutch to seek him out."
For Shah, antique furniture is a passion, not just a source of income. He refuses to advertise or promote his workshop. “It’s only word-of-mouth," he says.