Exotic grandeur in Rockcliffe

| February 12, 2012 | 0 Comments
The main reception room at the expansive Rockcliffe home of Indian High Commissioner Shashishekhar Gavai and his wife, Rina.

The main reception room at the expansive Rockcliffe home of Indian High Commissioner Shashishekhar Gavai and his wife, Rina.

When a house is sold during a game of bridge, the players might need a little glass of port to get over the shock. When the deal is made between the guys over a drink in the library without consulting their wives, a double is probably in order.

It sounds like fiction but it actually happened in the Acacia Avenue home that is now the residence of the Indian high commissioner. The house has an interesting history. But these days, it is a cultural beacon for those who enter. Many sculptures and artworks from India are highlighted in the spacious reception areas where High Commissioner Shashishekhar Gavai and his wife, Rina, entertain.

Like so many houses in the area, this one has its roots in the lumber business. Built in 1909 by civil engineer Allan Gilmour Mather, whose father had a connection with the Gilmour Lumber Company, the home was designed in the Edwardian Classical style. It made an imposing sight with its white-painted brick exterior, a gallery running across the front and sides and a notable red tile roof. The house was probably designed by Mather’s uncle, local architect James Mather, Martha Edmond speculates in her book Rockcliffe Park: A History of the Village.

Another seating area in the main reception room.

Another seating area in the main reception room.

According to Edmond, the stock market crash of 1929 forced Mather to sell his home to Shirley Woods, Sr., whose father James founded the Woods Manufacturing Co., makers of their famous Woods sleeping bag. Apparently one of these bags accompanied Roald Amundsen through the Northwest Passage in 1903 and warmed Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic. Shirley, himself, designed the first down-filled vest for Second World War soldiers.
A passionate renovator, Woods removed the massive porch and gallery (revealing a finely-detailed veranda at the top of the front steps) and covered the brick with stucco. In 1934, Woods sold his house to his friend Edmund Newcombe when he was visiting with his wife for a game of bridge. The two men, taking a break for a drink in the library, made the deal and then came out to tell their stunned spouses.

The Indian government bought the house from the Newcombes in 1950.

Clockwise from top left: The exterior of the home on Acacia Road; the Gavais; the dining room where guests are often treated to Mrs. Gavai’s cooking; some Indian pillows, which add lovely accents to the receiving rooms.

Clockwise from top left: The exterior of the home on Acacia Road; the Gavais; the dining room where guests are often treated to Mrs. Gavai’s cooking; some Indian pillows, which add lovely accents to the receiving rooms.

Today, the impressive seven-bedroom mansion sits in a large garden, partly hidden by a cedar hedge. Once inside, visitors are greeted in the large entrance foyer by Mrs. Gavai who is wearing a brilliant peacock blue sari trimmed with gold embroidered peacocks, the national bird of India. The entrance is dominated by a large fireplace. Atop the mantel are brass Hindu gods and, in front, a large traditional brass candle holder. Heavy brass temple bells line the stairway to the second floor.

On the main floor, there are two large cream-coloured reception rooms filled with art and Indian carpets. Of special interest are two stunning marble and gold vases from Rajasthan, India’s largest state, that compete with the couple’s collection of more than 150 bells from a variety of countries. Silver tables brighten the main reception area, also home to a collection of traditional drums. Another collection of blue and white china from Japan and China, and paintings of Krishna, the central figure in Hinduism, fill the walls, tables and breakfronts in the rooms. Silk pillows add dashes of colour to the formal rooms. “The blue room,” a favourite of Mrs. Gavai, is a small and charming sunroom looking out over the garden and backyard patio.

The expansive dining room is themed in burgundy and blue and can seat up to 18 guests, who dine on china and use silverware featuring the crest of India. “And the food is all homemade,” Mrs. Gavai says. She has two helpers who keep the house in shape and do the cooking.

A typical meal at the residence includes a fish, meat and chicken course, distinctly seasoned with spices to give the dishes different flavours and colours. Five or six vegetarian dishes and rice pilaf round out the sumptuous meal. Three Indian desserts always complete the feast.

The high commissioner and his wife are both culturally active in Canada. They have a large constituency of more than one million people of Indian descent living in this country. With 2011 declared the Year of India in Canada, the couple has promoted 108 events across the country — dance and musical events, a film festival and a trade fair. “There has been a big audience for our events,” says Mr. Gavai. And his wife, who organized the Indian Women’s Association to promote her country, is equally pleased with its success.

Visiting the Indian High Commissioner’s residence in Ottawa is a charming cultural and educational tour of an exotic land, an experience enhanced by the delightful diplomats who live there.

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Category: Delights

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Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.

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