Dakshinachitra Chennai Case Study

The glass of chilled mosambi juice was a life-saver. The blinding white heat and the humid haze that had assaulted my senses from the time I had landed in Chennai dissipated a wee bit.

I became aware of the quiet and calm of Dakshinachitra, “a living museum of art, architecture, crafts, and performing arts of South India”.

Located on the East Coast Road in Muthukadu, Dakshinachitra is about 21 km south of Chennai. The sprawling, 10-acre complex houses carefully recreated heritage structures, traditions and culture from the four southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is also a hub for performing arts, a retreat for artists, a learning centre for students, an exhibition space, a place to visit for the culturally inclined tourist… And a place that I had been wanting to visit for a long time, particularly to see the heritage structures.

So when the opportunity to visit Chennai came up about 10 days back, I planned my itinerary in such a way that I would go straight to Dakshinachitra from the airport itself. So far so good. What I had not accounted for, or rather ignored what everyone told me, was the severity of the infamous Chennai heat. I mean, how much more different could Chennai humidity be from Mumbai’s? By the time I reached Dakshinachitra, I was almost dehydrated and was having fond thoughts about Mumbai weather !

Though the mosambi juice and lots of water revived me enough to brave the heat and take a walk through the heritage houses, the relentless heat made it difficult for me to really enjoy my visit there. I did manage to walk through the entire section of heritage structures, but my mind and camera did not register or record everything I saw.

But do allow me to share with you what they camera recorded. 🙂

Dakshinachitra is a work in progress. It has a small, but growing collection of heritage structures from the 4 southern states with representations from certain dominant communities. What is striking is that even the vegetation of a particular region has been recreated to a certain extent to complement the area the heritage structures belong to. So while we can see the scrubs and bushes of northern Karnataka around the houses from that region, Kerala’s lush green vegetation is also seen around the houses from that state.

The heritage house in the photograph below is from Karnataka and was not yet open to the public as it was still being reconstructed. Don’t you think it looks rather grand and beautiful?

The cluster of houses in the photograph below belong to the weavers community from Ilkal in northern Karnataka. These houses are typically built of granite and the largest room in these houses is the one with the loom.

South India has a large population of the Lambani or banjara or gypsy community, who are well known for their embroidery. The photograph below depicts the Lambani version of the “Ardhanareeshwara”. Isn’t it stunning?

This cluster of houses originally formed the agraharam at Ambur village in Tirunelveli District in Tamil Nadu. When it was demolished, they made their way to Dakshinachitra to be reconstructed as they were in their original place. Personally, this was the highlight of my trip to Dakshinachitra, as my ancestors were from Tirunelveli District. I like to imagine that they must have lived in a house like this.

The merchant’s house in from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu in the photograph below was grand, but what I liked the most was this sepia-toned photograph mounted on a door. This prim and proper little girl with a sulky expression reminded me so much of someone I know. 😉

The Kerala section has two Hindu houses, a Syrian Christian house, a granary and a cattle shed—with each house being special and unique to the community and purpose that they served (see the next 3 photos).

Dakshinachitra also offers space for artists to exhibit their art and craft and at any given time there are 2-3 artists exhibiting their work. I saw an exhibition of giant leather puppets from Andhra Pradesh. All the puppets were mounted on the walls and most were on characters from the Ramayana.

If weather had been nice, this trip would have been a dream come true. It was the perfect time to visit as apart from a group of some 10 odd college kids, who were probably there on a study trip, there were no other visitors. At any other time, I would have relished this opportunity to explore and photograph and generally soak in the atmosphere. And when I would have left the place, it would have been with a happy buzz of having discovered and learnt something new. Something to talk about, something to share with others, and something to write about too.

But when I finished the tour of Dakshinachitra, I think I must have looked like Surpanakha in the photograph above; I most definitely felt as bad tempered as she looks here !

Note to self: (i) Please listen to well-meaning friends about weather updates in a city you are not familiar with. (ii) Another visit to Dakshinachitra is needed, but in better weather.

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DakshinaChitra is where houses are reborn. It’s like San Junipero — a fictional place in the popular series Black Mirror, where humans can choose to remain young and carefree — for houses. As soon as the museum gets to know of old, groaning, ready-to-crumble heritage buildings in any remote village of South India, it adopts it, and dismantles and reconstructs it on its 10-acre campus.

The latest addition is a 200-year-old Muslim house from Chikmagalur. Every pillar of the house, the brownish-yellow name plaque and even the porch has been faithfully retained. It’s one of the popular attractions today; if not for DakshinaChitra’s intervention, the house would have been reduced to a pile of dust, and lost forever.

Twenty years ago, on this day, the museum opened its gates to the public. Deborah Thiagarajan, the founder, recounts the first year as quite uneventful in terms of footfall, even as she walks us through the campus designed by Britain-born renowned Indian architect Laurie Baker.

“In fact, it took a full eight years to get a decent number of visitors,” says Deborah, shaking her head with disappointment. She quickly recollects with pride the audacity to start an establishment without money or land, but just a strong dream. “Well, I never considered it a whim,” she says, visibly amused by her own decision.

The organisation, with a handful of staff and a core group of volunteers, did not have the money to advertise; the only option was to wait for news to spread through word of mouth. Excited children, who were often brought in on school excursions, helped accelerate the process. “They loved it here, and they would go and tell their parents, who would bring them back for a second visit,” Deborah says, stopping to inspect one of the bedrooms in a Chettinad house.

This way, the numbers increased from 3,000 to 6,000... and now around 2,00,000 visit per year — out of which 50,000 are school children. Interestingly, only five per cent of the visitors are foreigners; the rest are Indians trying to get a peek into their own culture, which over the years, the founder says, has been choking under the blanket of modernisation. Deborah, who was born in Philadelphia, U.S., and shifted to Tamil Nadu in the early 80s after marriage to K.M. Thiagarajan, realised the importance of removing this blanket.

She worked for three-and-a-half years with the Tamil Nadu Nutrition Project, evaluating the effectiveness of the mid-day meal scheme. Her job took her to remote villages in western Tamil Nadu, where she discovered the simple lifestyles of weavers, craftsmen, artisans — their beautiful houses, culture and beliefs. She realised that “nobody was proud about what they already had. They would tell me that if they had some money, they would construct cement houses”. This attitude to understate what seemed to her an invaluable treasure, disturbed her. She found that even the schools followed a very Western European culture.

“There was no Bharatanatyam, no Carnatic music or folk art. My children sang the same songs as I did, back in the U.S. The youngsters were losing their ethnic identity, and all they were left with was a very confusing thought: ‘Who are we?’” she says.

Responding to the need for a platform that would encourage Indian art and craft, Deborah started the Madras Craft Foundation in 1984. It was only six years later that it managed to get land from the Government.

That was just the beginning of a long series of challenges in terms of funds, dealing with villagers and Government bodies. The villagers felt their land was being encroached upon and pulled off the fence each time Deborah and her team fixed it. “Every time we went and complained to the Collector, he would send a messenger with a drum to announce to the villagers that it was our legitimate land. But, it took a lot of time to make friends with the villagers, who even insisted that we give half the profits to them,” she says.

Meanwhile, Deborah and her then research assistant Benny Kuriakose (now a renowned architect) travelled the length and breadth of villages, exploring the architecture of agraharam houses, those of weavers, merchants and farmers in Tamil Nadu; in Kerala, they documented the variations in the materials used — the ambience and construction techniques were based on the geography and religion. Whenever a timber merchant contacted them about a house being taken down, they would go along with carpenters, deconstruct the house piece by piece, bring it to Muttukadu, and reconstruct it — like a jigsaw puzzle. Each house took them close to three years and 10 trips to complete. Over the years, 18 such puzzles have been solved.

“But the search for a Kerala Muslim house is still on,” Deborah says. Beside the Calicut and Syrian Christian houses, there is still a snug space left for yet another slice of history.

Also check out

* Ceramic Centre, which includes a community studio that can be rented by any artist who wants to work in clay, glaze and stoneware. It also holds regular workshops for the public.

* Conservation Lab, where a group of experts works to restore and preserve objects, artefacts and textiles.

* Library, where you can find over 14,000 books and journals on South Indian arts, crafts, performance, anthropology and folklore. It also includes 1,00,000 photographs and a vast collection of DVDs, CDs and tapes.

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