AT HOME WITH The Visvanaaths

History at every turn

Antiques from India offer a glimpse into the past for the Visvanaaths of Muthu's Curry

Getting a tour of the Visvanaaths' house is akin to taking a history lesson on India's colonial past.

About 50 antiques, which reflect their Indian heritage as well as the Indo- Portuguese, Indo-Dutch, Anglo-Indian and British heritage of India, dot their three-storey house in Bright Hill Crescent. There is also a basement.

Mr Kasivishvanaath Visvanaath and his wife Veshali, who are part of the second-generation owners of Muthu's Curry, decorated their house this way to remind their three children - Ayyadarshan, 14, Pujaa, 13, and Hrithhish, 10 - where their ancestors came from.

The couple run the restaurant, which has three outlets here, together with Mr Visvanaath's younger brother Srinivasan, 35.

Mr Visvanaath, 43, says: "These pieces have survived many years and lived through generations of families. They serve as a good eye-opener for the kids, to show them our roots and culture." "

Mrs Visvanaath, 36, says the children are not worried about knocking over the antiques, but adds: "As the pieces can be more than 100 years old, they were initially worried about spirits. They've watched too many movies. Once they saw how nice the antiques looked in the home, they couldn't wait to invite their friends over."

The family lived in a terrace house in Greenwood Avenue for nine years before moving to their current place in September last year.

To decorate it, they made numerous trips over a year to various parts of India to buy the antiques, spending about $300,000.

Places they went to included Goa, India's smallest state in the west known for its Portuguese influences; Malabar, which was ruled by the Dutch for 130 years; Pondicherry, where the furniture bears French influences; and the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu in south India, where the family come from.

Great finds include a whatnot - a series of open shelves meant to display ornamental items - from C. Lazarus & Co, a renowned cabinet-maker known for its furniture during the British rule; and a Malabar dowry box made in the early 1900s, from jackwood and bronze and used to carry silk and gold. The box still retains its original bright painting.

One of their best buys was a pair of Hamsam birds, a mythological bird which resembles a goose or a swan, and appears in Indian art, literature, sculpture and textiles.

Mrs Visvanaath says of the statues which they found in Tamil Nadu and are more than 200 years old: "Museums would snap them up instantly if they found these, so we're very lucky to have found them... and even more so as they came as a pair. We love them as the beauty of the bird is the calmness of its face."

But not every antique made the cut. Mr Visvanaath says: "We didn't want the antiques to be show pieces. They had to be functional, such as being storage. Even if it's a pretty antique but is good only for show, we don't want it."

And given that they were buying pieces of India's history, the couple had to make sure that every item was first approved by the Antiquity Board of India and carried relevant documentation for their export.

Mrs Visvanaath says: "There are lots of replicas in the market, so it took us a while to find the originals. Every time we found a piece, we did our research on its history through books we bought."

With their newfound passion, they found they had to edit their decor when two 40ft containers of furniture and sculptures turned up at their home and they realised they had bought more items than their 4,400 sq ft house could accommodate.

So, instead of over-accessorising with the antiques, the couple started Prakalyam Gallery in November at The Vertex in Ubi Avenue 3, where they sell pieces that could not fit in their home. The name Prakalyam means "all things beautiful" in Sanskrit and "olden times" in Hindi, and prices at the gallery range from $90 to $20,000.

Mrs Visvanaath says: "It was like we had an addiction to antiques. We just bought and bought.

"Eventually, we had too many and thought it was too good not to share with others what we had found."

The couple discovered their joint love for Indian heritage pieces by accident: On holidays, they would gravitate towards architectural or historical sights. So, their furniture-buying trips went smoothly.

Mr Visvanaath says: "It's rare that we would disagree on what to buy. We'll both point out the same piece at the same time. What we'll fight over is who picked it first."

The biggest challenge is fitting the large pieces in their home. For example, they had trouble moving in a 200kg uttaram. This is a 3m-long traditional Chettinad ceiling made of teak, which has colourful paintings of eight Ashta Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of beauty, wealth and fertility.

To get the uttaram to the second floor, they had to cut it into three and reinforce the pieces with metal structures.

They also had to touch up the original vegetable pigmentation paint with regular paint.

Mrs Visvanaath says: "We had sleepless nights over how to fit the uttaram. It was such a huge job and we had to think how to bring the piece in carefully without damaging it."

The couple still go on shopping trips to India about five times a year, although the items now go to their gallery. But if there is a rare find or an item that they love, it might just end up in their home.

Mr Visvanaath says: "Both of us are excited that we can refresh the look of the home."

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on Feb 15, 2014.

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