A Family of Ebonists: Fine Cabinet Makers

Features Issue 17 Aug, 2010
Text by Susan Fowlds

Kabindra and Lebendra Tamrakar had  come to my notice through a friend, and on my first visit to them I thought my friend had misunderstood my need to meet with some specialist cabinetmakers.  Their shop at Kumari Pati just short of the Patan Hospital, named ‘Himalayan Wood Carving and Himalayan Interiors - Chinese Classical Furniture’, reveals at first a souvenir type shop crammed with tiny carved windows, some chests, but mainly portable gift items.  But I kept quiet, and found myself invited behind the counter through a door, and up some narrow stairs to a showroom.  And there I discovered their art in true form - copies of Chinese classical furniture, made and finished with such precision that the balance and proportions cannot be faulted.

Although their grandfather was a metalworker like most Newar Tamrakars, their father had changed to woodcarving first and then furniture.  It was their father who was introduced to the Chinese classical designs by an expat over 20 years ago.  This same expat gave Tamrakar Senior a copy of a wellknown book entitled ‘Chinese Domestic Furniture 1368 - 1912’ by Gustav Ecke originally published in Peking (Beijing) in 1944.
From this introduction there established a passion for Chinese furniture which Tamrakar’s sons also inherited when they joined the firm.  Gustav Ecke’s Chinese Domestic Furniture was a quite valuable resource for 20th century cabinetmakers, as the measured drawings enabled a designer or copyist to get the dimensions and scale perfectly.  Today with computers, who knows what cabinetmakers now do.

Gustav Ecke worked at The Catholic University of Peking during 1944, also called Furen University, Beijing.  At first I could not find out much about Gustav Ecke, but then I did learn that he had taught western art history at Furen, and had married a young art student, Tseng Yuho, in 1945, and that by ‘49 they were forced to leave China and settled in Hawaii.

Gustav Ecke died in 1972, at the same time that Tseng earned a Ph.D. from the Fine Arts Institute of New York.  She later held the chair of Art History at the University of Hawaii, and a recent interview after her retirement in Hawaii talked of her life and love for Gustav Ecke, whom I imagine must have been quite a bit older than her.

All this was an aside, but how fascinating to discover a story behind the name.

In China Ecke had travelled in the 20s and discovered Chinese cabinetwork.  Later in Peking a professorial colleague had furnished his house with rosewood pieces in the Ming style.  This sparked Ecke’s interest again. On meeting an artist and a draughtsman  both of ‘quite genius spirit’ (Ecke’s words), Ecke was able to develop his interest into a publication.  Many houses in Peking were open to Ecke to allow him to photograph and measure particular pieces.  The artisans of Lu Pan Kuan allowed Ecke to observe and take lessons in practical skills of traditional workmanship.

Chinese furniture reveals cabriole legs, clubfeet and oblique braces as true sculpture rarely seen in furniture of any other style.  The various dynasties brought about the development of social arts such as architecture and furniture design.  It is said too that the best of Chinese period furniture may have coincided with the flourishing time of blue and white porcelaine, about 1400 a.d.  (Alas, the blue and white in our photography is fake Thai china).

Back to the Tamrakar family and their patrons who have included Ambassadors, heads of WHO, FAO, and the UN, many of whom may have been introduced by Mr. Muni Rana, an aficionado of this style of furniture.  Both the Tamrakar boys studied Wood Product Design, and in June/July this year 2003, will participate in a Swiss promoted exhibition here in Kathmandu.  Do look out for the advertisements.

As well as the Gustav Ecke book, the family subscribe to Orientations magazine from which they take a number of their designs, and of course they are only too willing to look at photographs or designs of your own choice.  I will let you in on a secret too, a colour version of Ecke’s book is available on loan from the Awon Library at Kupondole; now don’t rush, and you will have to join the library in order to borrow.  Or it may even be on the list of books not to be lent!

The wood mainly used by the Tamrakar family is Shisham Jungle wood and Dalbergia, with much of the timber coming from the Terai, and seasoned at a special location at the Patan Industrial Estate.  The final piece of furniture is oiled with a combination of turpentine and wax, and is quite heat resistant.