Somewhere among the three floors of Balaji’s Antiques, in Bengaluru, is a portrait signed by two men — the artist, SN Swamy, and the model, Adolf Hitler. Swamy, who studied at the JJ School of Art in the late 1920s and received the Padma Shri in 1969, was known for his sketches of temple sculptures and portraits. In addition to Hitler, he also drew (and got signatures from) Dr. Rajendra Prasad, C Rajagopalachari, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Uday Shankar and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and all these can be found at Balaji’s Antiques. If you look online, there are similar portraits of Albert Einstein, HG Wells and TS Eliot. The correspondence between Swamy and his muses deserves a story by itself. Meanwhile, here’s how nearly 20 of his portraits ended up in Balaji’s Antiques.
The store’s 43-year-old owner, DG Balaji, tells us over the phone, “It took us ten years to convince Swamy’s son to part with those paintings. He knew of our interest and that we weren’t going to sell them, and only keep them in our collection, so he agreed.” In 1924, Balaji’s grandfather had started the first gramophone store in Karnataka, called Seethaphone Company. Since his family had always had close ties with the authorities of the Dharmasthala temple, in Karnataka, Balaji’s father suggested to its chief administrator, Dr. Veerendra Heggade, that he open a museum. “After the temple, there was nothing for pilgrims to see. So we started procuring antiques for them,” says Balaji.
With the Manjusha Museum as its first client, Balaji’s family went on to acquire items for everyone, including an Omega pocket watch for the Omega Museum, in Switzerland, and most of the props in David Lean’s A Passage to India. “Lean said he’d never spent so much time in any antique shop in India,” he says.
Balaji’s store specialises in Raja Ravi Verma lithographs, Tanjore paintings, colonial furniture and tin toys, and also houses quirks such as miniature gramophones that were played in the trenches in WWI and WWII. “They are extremely rare and tough to get,” he says. He says his clientele has evolved to share his love of vintage over the last decade. “Serious collectors come to my shop, not window shoppers. Ten years ago, there was no understanding of antiques. Now they are aware of it and willing to spend a good amount. We have to know about the things we sell, because even our buyers are experts,” he continues. Balaji’s knowledge, in fact, is so extensive that even the new kids on the block turn to him for help — such as the year-old Phantom Hands, India’s first online store for antiques.
Installation artist Aparna Rao and former investment banker Deepak Srinath founded Phantom Hands because “we cannot possibly buy and keep all the objects we come across”. While Rao’s family has been in the furniture business for four decades, Srinath got involved because “I am deeply interested in the stories and history that these objects represent”. With monthly revenues of about Rs 10 lakh, the two have even raised an undisclosed amount from four angel investors, including Google India head Rajan Anandan.
A quick glance at the website will throw up items that range from caging birds to grooming leeches. They use beautiful, if flowery, language to explain each piece — a metal garden chair “wears its years of exposure to the elements with pride, in the form of a natural patina and great rust finish”. On the sourcing of his pieces, Srinath says, “Over the years, some very knowledgeable antique dealers and collectors have become good friends. Since we started Phantom Hands, they have been helpful in sourcing and giving us access to their collection.” One of their unique finds was a trestle table with detachable cast iron legs and a teak tabletop. “Instinctively we felt there was something special about the design, but nobody seemed to know much about its provenance. We started doing some research and found that they were used as portable surgery tables, especially during military campaigns in British colonies from Australia to India. A surgeon from Australia purchased it and was delighted to have an important piece of medical heritage,” he says.
The website initially caught our attention because it had posted a pair of chairs by furniture designer Pierre Jeanneret (Le Corbusier’s less famous cousin). We found out later that it was a reproduction. “We came across the Pierre Jeanneret chairs with one of the dealers we source from. The quality of reproductions varies widely from the very good to the bad. The way the joints are constructed, the quality of the wood, the finesse in the carpentry — all have to be observed and studied carefully,” says Srinath.
This is one difference between him and old-school Balaji, who clarifies, “I don’t sell any replicas in my shop — only the originals, vintage and authentic.”