Vadodara, December 6, 2022
The Swing must certainly be amongst the oldest (and the most joyous!) pieces of furniture designed for multi-purpose use by mankind! I don’t think it has ever gone out of fashion.
My belief was confirmed when I visited the RAW Collaborative 5 exhibition held over the first week December weekend at the hip Alembic Heritage City Center in Vadodara that attracted large crowds (in spite of a hefty entry ticket; not a bad beginning for Vadodara peeps who are used to expecting and getting freebies all the time.)
This exhibition showcases premium design – furniture, furnishings, art and photography, toys, glassware, products made from metal, wood, fibre, rattan, hemp, what-have-you. Amongst the hundreds of superbly designed products on show, what caught my eye were the swings!
No one knows who invented swings, but it's clear they've been around a really long time. The first primitive swings may have been nothing more than thick vines that grew naturally on large trees. For those of us, who have grown up with Tarzan, it’s not difficult to imagine primitive humans grabbing a vine and swinging out over the water before dropping into a swimming/bathing hole.
Various cultures have invented playful contraptions for swinging throughout ancient civilizations and up to modern day. But the Greeks seemed to have captured it from the earliest years. Greek artists captured children and women njoying swings, painted on vases from as early as the 5 th century B.C. Later, women on swings became a popular theme in European paintings, especially by French artists.
It is also believed that Swings had their origins in the ancient Hindu culture of India 3000 BCE. The Indian Banyan Trees, found across the country and in all villages, have strong aerial roots reaching the ground. Village children tied two ends of the roots together to make a swing and ‘swang’ to their heart’s content!
The fact that swings were popular in India for many centuries can be clearly understood and appreciated when we see how often and how well they are depicted in Indian miniature paintings. Then later, we can see them in the Ravi Varma prints and the studio prints that took after Ravi Varma, and the Kalighat and Company paintings.
As cinema became popular in India, swings came to symbolize the various nuances of romance. In symbolic and metaphorical terms the single swing in the outdoors or in the garden or a porch and terrace of a home, simple or palatial, represented the faithful companion to the nayika/heroine. In the bloom of first love and happiness as well as in moments of deep sadness and heartbreak, the heroine at the swing, often accompanied by a song, was a popular construct!
Over the centuries, swings were made from a variety of materials: vines, wood, rope, steel, tyres, and plastic. Safer, better designed and standardized swings began to be manufactured by artisans in the late 1800s. The factories took over manufacturing them from wood, iron, steel and aluminum. I know a manufacturer in Vadodara, the Maheshwaris, who continually experiment with swing designs, coming up with some brilliant ones that can match stylishly designed interiors of contemporary homes!
In India, swings have been an important part of traditional furniture in large homes. They had a broad and long seat, almost of sofa size or a ‘day bed’ and allowed only a gentle sway. The simple ones had a sturdy wooden plank as the seating and were held up from the ceiling by strong iron hooks interlocked into each other. Such swings easily sat three adults.
As a part of domestic furniture, these swings were often placed inside the home in the family area where they commanded right of place to the elders in the family. The ladies in the house used it when the elders were away or resting.
As swinging is scientifically described as a Calming Motion, especially for children and senior citizens, having a swing in the home was a no-brainer especially in large Indian joint families in the good old days. Swinging also releases endorphins into the body which make them feel happier and more focused. When they feel calm, both children and the elderly are less likely to suffer temper tantrums.
While these "one-plank" swings can be found in houses across India, well-to-do homes sported swings that came in various levels of comfort. These swings were decorated with carvings and some even had a back rest sometimes with inlayed painted tiles, and arm rests.
In Saurashtra, Gujarat, a popular design of the swing with a back rest had flexible metal rivets on both the arm rests that allowed the back rest to move 180 degrees.It allowed the back rest of the swing to face both ways such that those who sat on the swing could face the direction in which family members or guests were seated.
These swings had decorative brass ropes to hang them from the ceilings. Since household swings were an essential in every home, the sturdy iron rings from which the swing was hung were embedded in the ceiling itself when houses were constructed.
In rich and palatial households, swings could be very elaborate, often completely created from intricately carved wood. They would generally not be suspended from the ceilings but would be designed as stand-alone, having side panels and a broad canopy that would strongly hold it up and allow for some swinging action.
Many of the swings exhibited in the RAW Collaborative show were designed as standalone on the floor, whether it is on the covered porch, terrace, balcony, or within rooms in homes. The young designers, largely Gujjus, were working with solid polished wood, cane and rattan, and minimalistic steel fixtures that ensured the movement of the swing.
One of the most striking designs was by BESO -- a two-seater with a thoughtfully and beautifully designed tray in between to hold tea cups or glasses or a plate of finger food! Very, very functional and chic, at the same time.
Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.
All photos courtesy of Piyush Maheshwari and Sandhya Bordewekar (at RAW Collaborative exhibition.)