A ROYAL carpenter

2013-08-22 00:00

CALL Kuber Eadhev Singh on the telephone and he answers “Tambuti” — the name of the wood he uses for the hand-carved furniture he produces at his premises on Mahatma Gandhi Street in KwaDukuza (formerly Stanger).

“Tambuti” Singh is currently working on a chair for the newest member of the British royal family — Prince George, third in line to the throne and the first child of Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.

The chair continues a Singh family tradition of making handcrafted furniture for the British royals that goes back to 1972 and Princess Anne’s marriage to Mark Phillips.

“My father was invited to the wedding but couldn’t go, so he made a gift instead. It was a writing desk made from tambuti with a lid that opened.”

The invitation came about because the Singhs are also royalty, with links to the royal Singh family of Agra.

Since then, Singh (72) has made a jewellery box for Princess Diana, on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981, and another that he presented to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Durban in 1995.

Following the death of the queen mother at the age of 101 in 2002, Singh made a wooden cross in her memory, which he later personally delivered to Buckingham Palace for the queen’s personal shrine. “She later wrote me a letter to say it had touched her heart.”

When Prince William and Kate Middleton married in 2011, Singh presented them with a “handcrafted table on which they can keep a Bible, or a candle, or whatever they want”.

All these items were made from tambuti wood. “Tambuti is the king of the trees,” says Singh, whose father first began working with the wood in 1956.

Singh and his wife Anitha — “she encourages me in all I do and is a pillar of strength to me” — have two sons, two daughters and eight grandchildren — the sixth generation of Singhs to be born in South Africa. “My great-grand­father came here as an indentured labourer. He worked as a station master at Hillcrest.”

Singh’s father, Eadhev, entered the furniture industry in 1929, living and working in Westville, making items from imported wood, such as oak and ash. But when the shipping trade was disrupted during World War 2, such woods were no longer imported. “My father struggled for a few years, but in 1956 some white friends took him to Zululand to look at tambuti trees,” Singh recalls. “He was able to fell some trees and make planks for furniture.” The trees were harvested in the Tugela River valley and northern Zululand.

“Once he began working with tambuti, my father never looked back,” says Singh, and his father moved the family to Stanger, now KwaDukuza, to be close to the source of his working material.

Singh has also crafted items for King Goodwill Zwelithini, and former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, as well as U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

The latter has an interesting story behind it. “When my father was sawing the logs in 1956, he heard a crunching sound,” says Singh. “He looked and found a military bullet. Historians said it would have been fired during the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. Somebody’s life was saved by this tree. My father didn’t use the wood but kept it.”

Following the September 2011 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the U.S., Singh used this wood to handcraft a three-legged wine table with a flap that could be raised, on which he carved a lit candle. “I also carved a message to the American people on this wood that had saved a life, wishing that they may also be kept from harm.”

According to Singh, a dating of the tree containing the bullet found it to be 1 200 years old. The other trees harvested by his father in 1956 were between 400 and 500 years old. Today, tambuti is a protected species and Singh uses only timber felled by farmers who have permits. “These trees are historic. They were witnesses to South African history. King Shaka, the Zulu Napoleon, and other Zulu kings sat under their shade. The tambuti has a special beauty. Even if you make two identical items from the same timber, the beauty of the wood will make them look different.”

Every item made by Singh is French polished, not varnished or stained. “My wife does the polishing and we use an old English polish we are still keeping in the family.”

Singh has already selected the right timber for Prince George’s chair: “I set out to make an artistic work. I spend time looking at the timber and I talk to the timber. I am now designing the chair,” he says.

“I found a design for a king’s chair and I am making measurements, sizing it down for a child, but it will be of such a size that the prince will be able to use it for many years.” Singh hopes to begin hand-carving the chair this week. “I make the item as a labour of love and I want that love to be visible.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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