The sight was overwhelming. As I walked inside the basement of a posh building in Walkeshwar, Mumbai, I was greeted by the sight of dusty shelves filled with old, colourful glass and ceramic jars of every shape and size.
There were beautiful Greek amphoras, huge metal pots that dominated the tiled floors and ornate teak and mahogany furniture including chests, cupboards and dining tables. The collectibles all belonged to Mahendra Doshi Restorateurs. The late Doshi was an avid collector of antiques from across the world. Today, his passion for restoration is being carried on by his family — Chiki Doshi, Anand Gandhi and Asim Doshi. The trio are neck-deep in preparation for ‘Stories within Jars’, an exhibition that will open in Mumbai on October 18.
“These are highly collectible pieces from not just Indian states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Kutch, Andhra Pradesh, but also Europe, China, Rome, Greece and the Mediterranean region,” says Chiki, the most chatty of the three.
Today, the term ‘jar’ only conjures up images of the odd glass container used for storing honey and jam or airtight containers filled with an array of nuts. For a generation that has grown up with refrigeration facilities and the convenience of lightweight plastic, it’s easy to sink into ignorance about the significance of old systems of preservation like canning, most of which was done using jars. Holding precious cargo like spices, oils and wine, jars and amphoras were amongst the most widely travelled containers since pre-historic times. Each one of them told a story of merchants and trade, high-sea travels and the exchange of luxury goods across the world.
A collection for keeps
Asim Doshi gets nostalgic as he recalls buying Bulls Eyes, the black and white striped candy, from bonboniere jars at old Irani restaurants. “You hardly see these jars anymore. Back then, you could buy four candies for just a rupee,” he says with a laugh. There are also Dutch ceramic ink bottles, wine decanters, Belgian St Lambert bottles and a Borosil acid measuring jar, which Chiki thinks would make for a funky container to serve beer or wine in.
As I spot a familiar looking white and light brown ceramic jar that is commonplace in Indian homes for storing pickles, Chiki informs me that it’s actually an English marmalade jar, the concept of which was copied by India. The Chinese jars are the most striking. Dating back to the Ming dynasty, there are wine jars with a spout and ginger jars which get their name from the spice that was much sought-after and exported by the Chinese to the West. “People of Gujarat used Chinese jars for storing their pickles,” says Chiki. A lot of the pieces have seen decades of wear and tear, but are still ‘beautiful in their original glory’, according to Chiki who believes that ‘shabby is chic.’
Like the late Doshi, the trio love travelling to find rare collectibles and despite the convenience, despise technology-aided deals done through tools like email and Whatsapp. “It’s our eye that sells. The charm lies in meeting families, sitting with them and knowing their stories,” says Chiki.
A lesson in history
The exhibition will also display legacy-rich Indian pots and pans like the Urli, a huge brass traditional cooking vessel from Kerala, lozenge-shaped copper containers from Kutch and an array of cooking vessels with beaten, textured surfaces from Gujarat.