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Uma Rao's love affair with antique furniture

After close to 40 years of living her passion, Bangalorean Uma Rao’s eyes still sparkle when she speaks of her treasures.

Uma Rao is an antique lover and has always been. Her passion and interest helped in introducing Bangaloreans to timeless antique furniture, ask any old Bangalorean who Uma Rao is, and they’ll know immediately. The lovely lady who knows all about antiques on Brigade Road.

We visited her at her new venture, Vermilion House, a business she’s started with her friends Bina Rao and Purvi Patel. Nestled in the heart of Fraser Town, this concept store reflects the mood and personality of its owners.

Uma Rao explained her work model which is about sourcing antiques from all over India and then having her people restore them right here in Vermilion House’s workshop.

When and how did you start?

I started pursuing my passion in 1971. I was always interested in antiques and furniture. My husband told me it was an expensive passion and that it wasn’t enough to buy, I also had to sell. I got some capital as well as guidance on how to pursue this from like-minded enthusiasts who visited from Delhi. In the north people had more appreciation for such things. In the south they were more interested in jewellery and sarees but not so much in antiques. I worked on increasing my network. You know people talk about how they got hold of certain antiques from a certain palace or from a village and all that. I don’t believe in that at all. It is not possible to travel the length and breath of the country to source out such things. I connected with dealers. And I grew that network through my visits to Delhi and Mumbai. Soon I was able to gather enough contacts among dealers and establish a clientele, which helped.

At what point did you realise you had an eye for antiques?

When I was younger, we had a foreigner living in the upper part of our house as a tenant. She was really interested in collecting and buying Indian antiques. So, I would often accompany her to the markets and we would have a great time looking at these wonderful things. I would help her bargain the price. So she would always take me along. Prior to that, I think it was the general atmosphere in our house. My grandfather also had a similar passion, which I think passed on to my mother and me. My mother also used to keep house wonderfully with unique antiques. So I think all that contributed to my interest.

How is the demand for antiques in Bangalore?

Initially when I started it was not good… then slowly over the years, it picked up. People were interested in buying and collecting Indian antiques. But now, people are keener on modern furniture. The demand is not very good.

How about hotels and corporate companies?

Yes, some corporate companies do approach us. A lot of them need framing done for their paintings. We’ve done a lot of good work for the Britannia office here. Apart from that, the Taj Group sources a lot of stuff (antiques and furniture) from us. Even the Oberoi hotel, Bangalore. We have supplied a huge number of antiques to them. Mr Oberoi keeps in touch with me and is interested to know about any new furniture or antique that comes in. But you know, he is now quite old and the hotel has new management who are more interested in modern elements.

Do you see this growing as an investment?

No. See, I’m not a business person. I do this because it is my passion. I know that nowadays one read in the papers about certain paintings being sold for a large amount of money and how people are looking at art as good investment. But I don’t think that’s the case with antique furniture. I don’t think people associate it with any business value.

Although maybe after few years, certain antiques may reach that level. But it will then become something very exclusive and for a select group of people. Indian antiques are sold at auctions in the UK and other foreign countries for a lot of money. But those things are very exclusive and hold the interest of a very niche group.

Never thought of expanding to Delhi or Mumbai?

No. I’m on my own and it’s a difficult task. I’ve often asked my daughter, who also has a good eye for these things, to look into this but she’s not too keen. And that is simply because she’s not too fond of the idea of interacting with the dealers. You know it’s not easy to manage and coordinate such things. For me, it’s different because I have managed to build a rapport with them over so many years.  And apart from that, in Mumbai and Delhi, it’s so expensive to rent a place.

When and how did Vermilion House come about?

Well, It was around the time when I was working out of a small space on MG road called Panchavati Heirlooms. I knew Bina Rao, who at that point was doing similar work on her own, for a long time and she and I shared the same predicament. We had to continuously move out of rented spaces. So along with another friend, Purvi Patel who is into embroideries and is superbly talented, we came up with this concept of Vermilion house where we thought all three of us could share the rent, expenses and carry out our respective work from this one common place. Since we discovered we gelled well with each other, it seemed to be the perfect idea. All three of us are good friends and we never let the business or work aspect come between us. Purvi Patel holds her exhibitions and carries out her work from here. Bina Rao is also a book enthusiast and we often have book readings here when we invite authors.