Heirlooms that connect Indian Ocean cultures centuries apart

Friday July 30 2021
Antique collection at the Trade Routes furniture shop in Nairobi, Kenya.

Antique collection at the Trade Routes furniture shop in Nairobi, Kenya. The pieces, imported from India, are similar to those brought by Indian Coolies. PHOTO | FRANCO ZAIDI


As Old Nairobi moves up the hill to a reconfigured conurbation of businesses and residences still called Westlands, trade follows the flag. A low-lying shopping mall in Loresho with middle-class aspirations has emerged containing a new emporium of Indian Ocean artifacts. Housed underground, Trade Routes -- part gallery of arcane Indo-Swahili-Somali architecture and art and part museum shop -- contains a wacky collection of curiosities brought together by Kenyans of Hindu and Sikh Panjabi origin.

Here, outside colonialism’s narrow confines, trans-global recovery -- with its wondrous cascade of architecture and history -- revisits Eastern Africa’s Later Golden Age (15th-19th centuries) including its commercial expansion into the southern Silk Road cities of South Asia; the porous boundaries of the known past reinvigorating an era of Arab, African-Swahili, Somali and Indian style that was as aesthetically pleasing as it was philosophically profound.

Gone, fortunately, is that earlier generation of Euro-American Africanists and their local acolytes embedding the quaint romantic fallacy that [we] came in dhows. Here mainly people of Indian origin called Asians were depicted as disembarking from dhows -- those lateen-sailed, wooden vessels constructed at dockyards around the entire Indian Ocean littoral with key ports along the Lamu, Pate and Mombasa Island archipelago -- for plying its waters.

A disappointing, reductionist vignette masking a long, dramatic history, for at least two millennia intrepid seafarers including fishermen, traders and travellers, following coastal monsoon winds, had sailed both East and West along known routes, familiar since antiquity. It was only much later that South Asians began moving westward in large numbers.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in l869, ordinary British shipping services, utilising industrial-sized vessels powered by steam engines, had become the new, preferred means of travel. These enlarged ships allowed the newcomers easier access to the Gulf regions as well as to East, South and Central Africa.

During the colonial period, the new arrivals comprised mainly of Indian workers derogatorily called coolies were brought by the British and Germans to work as indentured labourers building networks of new railway lines running from the old port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria and from Dar-es Salaam also to the lake district.


Absent too was Nairobi’s former vibrant market area, that scenic jewel of street life and community architecture; an institution once as familiar to Kenya as Zanzibar’s Old Town to Tanzania. A peek into Nairobi’s “Indian Bazaar” building history would have revealed shops fronting merchandise with bedrooms at the back, some styled along Ottoman lines complete with mashrabieh(s)-- enclosed upstairs balconies where women in purdah peered through slat windows to the street life below. In 2012 a few of these edifices still existed along River Road.

A rickshaw

A rickshaw in Antsirabe in the East African island nation of Madagascar. PHOTO | AFP

Then, Nairobi, appearing like a colourful mosaic of the young city’s citizenry-- from Bombay to Aden to coastal Mogadishu-- mingled around smoking jikos piled high with hot bhajias and samosas or indulged in the secret pleasures of opium. With intense discussion centred around cloth and carpets, the Bazaar--today’s Biashara Street-- served as its ever-beating commercial heart…and so much more.

Here Zanzibari women in headscarves and men in long white coastal gelabia topped with round kofia, Hindu Panjabi women with flowing hair in native salwar-kameez (trousers and over-blouses), Nubian women in topes, Somali men their beards hennaed deep red and Maasai of both sexes in skins and beaded jewellery jostled for goods in a colourful road-warren of street performance art.

Reviving this heady atmosphere of Old Nairobi is perhaps the foundation stone of Trade Routes. An Indian antique furniture shop.

Teak, the favoured Burmese wood used as ballast by engineers in the construction of British raj railways, were primed for carving Rajasthani doors, lattice windows and intricately, incised rectangular chests, large and small. All can be found here.

Ajay Dosaja, grandson of South Asian pioneers with his wife Deepa, granddaughter of famed Kenyan high court judge, Chanan Singh, invoking their own trans-generational memories, exhibit Tibetan Buddhas, Hindustani Shivas and Ranas as well as a host of numerous other South Asian gods and goddesses to be worshipped or not, at this quaint shop.

A banker, Dosaja got bored and left his managerial position at a prominent Nairobi bank. Since most ideas originate from elsewhere, his parents once owned a workshop and furniture showroom on Riverside Drive. Today fortunately for him, a whole network exists in India for sourcing and salvaging antique and vintage pieces such as antique carved doors from Rajasthan and Kerala to be either refurbished or newly made.

After employing the talents of East African craftsmen and carpenters Dosaja began importing salvaged carved wood from India for the work of restoring pieces locally. He sourced Congolese mahogany, rosewood, teak and mvuli. Unforeseen problems such as warping and cracking of unseasoned wood led to Plan B: Utilising local reclaimed, environmentally, friendly soft and hardwoods. In addition he experimented with reusable plantation mango from Rajasthan or wood recovered from the demolished rafters of bungalows out of Bangalore that proved more easily accessible and that provided aesthetically-pleasing results.

Using new and old architectural elements utilising antique doors, wheels, windows, archways, pillars, columns, cabinets under Dosaja’s inventive eye, they become console tables, candlestick holders, beds and rocking chairs.

An antique candle holder

An antique candle holder made of decorated carved wood. PHOTO | FRANCO ZAIDI

Items on display include brass tiffins large and small for carrying hot chapatis and or layering spicy curries; shallow Indian containers called pan boxes carrying betel leaves with sweeteners used for digestion or for tobacco as a stimulant.

A vintage iron milk pot, coffee table, mirror from iron candle-holder, a rocking chair reproduction out of horse-cart wheels, a cupboard from a recycled Gujarati door--its sides and back from a cupboard sourced in Mumbai -- are other eccentric collectors’ items.

A rocking chair

A rocking chair at the Trade Routes furniture shop in Nairobi, Kenya. PHOTO | FRANCO ZAIDI

Choice vintage British Indian cast-iron windows in wood frames called jhali can also be bargained for. And perhaps most desirable for its mainly historical value is a charkha --- Mohandas Gandhi’s loom for underpricing imported British cotton and cheap fabrics with home-made cloth. It is considered today as among his most significant contributions to satyagraha, the non-violent resistance during India’s struggle for independence.

A typical Indian food container

A typical Indian food container is also on sale at the antique shop. Picture Franco Zaidi

Against today’s frightening landscape of pandemic viruses, climate change, exhausting political intrigues and the usual ethnocentric conceits of white, western Euro-American dominance, Trade Routes offers dreams of sunken treasure, sea nymphs, Aladdin and his magic lamp,and the southern Silk Road from Samarkand to Shrinagar to Elsewhere. Our imagination is one art that is still in abundant supply.