The History Of Jali Furniture

Showcasing its own sense of cultural history, Jali (or Jaali) describes a perforated, lattice-style screen, which is commonly seen on balconies, shutter windows and building exteriors. This type of traditional architecture is typically found in humid parts of the world, stemming from Indian-Islamic, Islamic, as well as Hindu areas.

Jali is usually presented in panels, to form a shape filled with micro perforations. Associated with Asian aesthetic, this traditional architecture was mainly born into Northern India, becoming omnipresent across the region.

Why Jali Was Designed

It was originally designed to allow highborn women (balconies, upstairs) to view the world outside of their quarters: they could remain secluded and protected from prying eyes, whilst retaining a clear and far viewpoint. Jali screens offered privacy, without limiting the light or the outlook. Some even go as far to say that these screens represented a spiritual divide, between the earthly (the outside) and the divine (the woman inside).

Tied with a religious sentiment, Jali was also a way in which Muslim artists and artisans could avoid using human figures or bodies within public architecture and design, believing that to do so would be idolatry (forbidden in the Quran.) Instead, Jali was originally delivered in geometric motifs, with symmetrical shapes and lines perfecting a perhaps harder, more solid pattern. Over time, floral designs were popularised, with plant-based swirls of leaf shapes, vines and flower heads making fashion.

Popularising Jali

It was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who made a statement out of a more intricate and floral design, developing a signature ‘Mughal style.’ This style formulated between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Akbar established dominion over Northern and Central India and, being a true patron of art, established not only a strong empire, but also a strong sense of style!

One of the Emperor’s largest projects was building an ambitious, new capital city: Fatehphur Sikri. It was here that the ‘Mughal style’ concreted (sometimes literally!) and it was vastly adopted across similar regions and areas. Jali was a significant part of the entire Mughal design.

Jali Screen Materials

Whilst the Mughals (Persian word for Mongol - Mongolians) favoured Jali carvings in red sandstone, other types of stone were often used to carve these screens. In fact, as time developed, Jali was carved into wood, clay and even mud, making it a stylish design for all people. It was a pattern adopted by both high and low classes and could be used in both simplistic homes made of mud, or homes steeped in grandeur.

The Benefits of Jali

The reason this type of screen became so widespread, was due to its air cooling properties. You could call it an ‘early day’ air conditioning miracle, as it allowed a way to keep spaces cool, airy and well-lit. Science tells us that when air is compressed, it cools. As air is pressed through the micro perforations, staple to the Jali design, it creates a form of air ‘conditioning’ (well, compressor!). As well as ventilation, Jali also limits the glare of sun entering a room, hence it was an architectural feature born into hot locations. The size of the Jali varies too, with larger ‘holes’ used in more humid climates, and smaller perforations in hot (but less humid) temperatures.

Additionally, such a striking panel of shapes and outlines made the screen a principal decorative feature, both externally and internally. Whilst Jali was beneficial in looking more attractive than a plain wall, it also meant that as light fell through the screen, it cast shadows that were stunning and delicate.

Where Jali Screens Were Used

Initially, Jali screens were used to form exterior walls and balconies, places where the privacy of women could be kept. However, in more recent times, this design is inclusive of windows, doors, shutters, railings and room dividers.

Jali in the Modern Day

In modern India, Jali is less frequently seen now, because residential areas are more compact (which doesn’t allow for the privacy/security that a solid wall holds!). However, modern concrete constructions sometimes incorporate a Jali twist, and more traditional areas still utilise the design.

In the UK, Jali often gives way to stunning visuals in the form of furniture and artwork pieces, offering a historical and exotic twist to contemporary design. From wall panels, to mirrors, to cabinets, Jali is a humble way to introduce a dynamic elegance to any room.
James Pilsworth

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