The woods have a plan. Maybe they wish to release us from the trappings of cement and steel. Or, do they hope to bind us forever, and train us to survive in a world full of beasts, on instinct and gut? Like every last one of us, Natasha Kohli didn’t know what the woods had planned for her. All she had in mind was her plan for them. So, a quarter of a century ago, she went ahead and set up Filo. In principle, this is an exclusive furniture brand that has been catering to a niche group of patrons. In practice, it’s ridiculous to even try and define. Together, with her small team of ‘woodworkers’, she has been quietly reproducing craft from various historic periods. One finds Bauhaus of modernist German origins, Russian Imperials where Baroque made a claim on people’s senses, French Empire that inspired a century of romantics, and Biedermeier of Central Europe when the ash and oak woods of commoners triumphed the timber of the rich. Through textbooks, she studied each of these eras and some others, like the William IV, Louis XVI, and the more common Art Deco and Art Nouveau.
Up until her first exposition for the media at New Delhi’s Stainless Gallery some weeks ago, her work was anonymously present in places like the presidential suite of the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel, Wildflower Hall in SimlaMashobra. She was also involved in restoring Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace.
What took her so long to rise up from the saw dust? “The craft of carpentry grows inside you like a tree. The bark stands for years and years of endurance, grounded in knowledge of pure and classic craft. Once that is in place, you begin to branch out and bloom the way you wish to,” croons Kohli, the closet poet.
At home with the simple philosophy that the woods don’t belong to any one particular person, she chooses not to come out in the open as the face of the brand. Her enterprising self may have started the company, but her team cannot be overshadowed. “The machine is just a tool. The man behind the machine makes the magic happen,” says Kohli.
“I see passion in the eyes of these dedicated workers. I see their eyes light up with exhilaration whenever they finish creating something. How could I ever call the brand only mine?” she adds.
She has found a family of craftsmen in the Tarkhans of Punjab. From Rajasthan, there are restorers of old havelis, who are good with joinery sections of timber. In Vizag, she came upon creators of Dutch colonial furniture in Bulandshehar, she got her hand carvers, and Ludhiana lent her some good mechanists. Among her team of 100 specialists, which operates out of a four-floor workshop in Noida, she calls one an ‘Ustaad’. What makes Zaheer Ahmed a master of his craft is that despite being illiterate in the written word, he has immense understanding of historic styles. “Sometimes, when we read books, we may not understand the words or the context, but our subconscious catches a certain emotion and it stays with us forever. Carpentry is deep like that and Zaheer has mastered it in sentiment,” she says, talking about how he knows angles, radii, and every single working detail of the autoCAD.
Among other wonders in her line of work, is the wonder of harmony, of old veneers, and older traditions. Zaheer has hand-carved the lotus console in the Padma series, which has countless representations in Hindu scriptures. The Ziyaratsi desk from Caliph series is a tribute to Kashmiri sufis in smoked eucalyptus, smoked zebrano veneers with macassar ebony and fine architectural marquetry and carving that is miniaturised.
In platinum and walnut, the Whirling Dervishes table is taken from the famous ufi dancers and the complete abandon with which they surrender themselves to their worship. The male and female form are designed to indicate restrained strength and beauty. In the Pharisee Series, one finds a Takht-e-Surur bed, the Aenbari-e-Surur armoire, and the Qal’at-e-Surur, wall pannelling. This is done in the Pietre Dure sensibility from the Mughal era, where stones and shells were cut and fitted together to form fluid textures.
Well, the only way to find a path in the woods is to first get lost in them. In a mad and magical way, Kohli takes you to that higher place.