Oil aboard: A lamp collector’s date with old flames
Some bear family names, and were designed as part of a woman’s dowry. Others are reminders that dawn is not far away. Tour Radeesh Shetty‘s 400 oil lamps.
Radeesh Shetty, 42, is the guardian of a flickering legacy.
He collects oil lamps, and the rich narratives of their origin and erstwhile significance. This isn’t merely a hobby, he says. “I like to think that I study my artefacts as a scholar would.”
For instance, look at the top of each lamp, the finial, and one can often find clues that point to its specific purpose, he says. “The kalash or urn symbolises prosperity; such a lamp would have been used to light the home. The hamsa or swan is enlightenment; this one would likely have been used in community rituals. A bull finial indicates use during worship in a Shiva temple. A Garuda (the eagle-like mythical king of birds) tells you the lamp was lit for Vishnu.”
Some of the 400 pieces he now owns were designed specifically as wedding gifts in Tamil culture. These are engraved with wishes of love, happiness and prosperity, and were included in a bride’s dowry. “Often, they were engraved with the names of family members too, becoming tangible symbols of a specific history and heritage,” Shetty says.
And so, in wood, copper, bronze and silver, his collection preserves elements of the cultures of India in particular, and Asia at large.
Interestingly, the wick was lit, for Shetty, when another light went out.
Born into a family of restaurateurs, he had dreamed of opening his own restaurant in Bengaluru. For grounding, he worked in advertising and sales for a few years. Then, in 2009, aged 26, he began to plan an F&B space. It just wouldn’t come together. Budgets shot up, market trends shifted.
“In this phase of temporary joblessness, I helped a friend design the interiors of her new home,” he says. “Finding the light fixtures proved to be the most difficult part.” This gave him the idea of creating customised lamps, and he began to travel across Asia in search of collaborators, suppliers and inspiration.
Shetty now runs The Purple Turtles, which works with independent designers to make customised light fixtures (and now also offers items of furniture and home decor). Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with their vintage and antique ancestors.
“I have come to appreciate the profound connection between a collector and their objects, as it seems that the lamps, in a peculiar yet beautiful manner, seek me out as much as I seek them,” he says, chuckling.
In Sri Lanka in 2022, for instance, he was in the midst of a trek when he came upon a man selling an unusual set of brass oil lamps with rooster finials. “I knew I couldn’t carry them all through the trek,” Shetty says, “so I made a deal with him: if he returned to the spot in three hours, I would buy them.”
At the appointed time, the man and the lamps were waiting, and the roosters found a new home. Shetty was thrilled to have not lost the artefacts. “The rooster pahana is a culturally significant one in Sri Lankan, particularly Sinhala, culture. The bird at its finial symbolises the triumph of light over darkness at dawn; and the eternal promise of another morning, a time of fresh starts and new beginnings.”
Within India, Kerala stands out as a trove of culturally rich and diverse antiques, Shetty adds. Some of the older ones, those from about two centuries ago, bear signs of interesting innovation. “There are unusual mechanisms for managing dripping oil, and the addition of smaller detachable lamps. These are the details I find fascinating.”
Partly, he says, because they are reminders of a world in which one made one’s own light, tended to it, and worked hard to keep it burning. How many can say they do this today?