What was a barren piece of sandy scrubland on the Coromandel coast is now a showcase of South Indian culture from the four states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, all tightly woven into a rich fabric of architecture, arts and crafts that any visitor can experience. As it defines itself, Dakshinachitra is “an interactive centre for living traditions in a changing society.”
Of the more than 22 different types of buildings, many are real houses that have been painstakingly re-located from their original sites from as far off as Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. There is a superbly crafted wooden building that has been slotted into place without a single nail, from the Syrian Christian community of central Kerala, a weaver’s house from North Karnataka and so on. These have not only been furnished with the utensils and portraits that might have been used by the original inhabitants, but wherever possible the craftpersons themselves guide the visitor in understanding the daily life of a weaver, or potter, or housewife. Just looking at the different types of kolams, or rice flour patterns made on the threshold of every house each morning, is an example of the rich diversity of ordinary life in this region.
The landscape was originally mapped out in the early 1990s by Laurie Baker, the famed architect of naturally found materials and vernacular architecture. He walked over the sandy expanse with Deborah Thiagarajan, the founder of Dakshinachitra and president of the Madras Craft Foundation that runs the project. She describes how he visualized it in his mind’s eye as if it was already there, talking about the different trees that needed to define the separate states, the natural water courses that would create the now undulating spaces, with their bridges and bastions cutting off portions of the plot so that there could be buildings of all kinds, serving different functions. Chennai-based architect Benny Kuriakose carried out the implementation of the original vision—there are buildings reserved for visitors, accommodation for crafts persons, shops, seminar halls, libraries and even a beautifully run restaurant.
One of the first steps was the construction of an Ayyanar Shrine. The Ayyanars are village guardians who take the form of giant horses that stand at the periphery of a village, along with their riders. At night, it is said that they circle the village guarding its inhabitants. Dakshinachitra’s Ayyanar Shrine provides a perfect vantage point from which to survey Baker’s original vision. But it took another five years before Dakshinachitra could formally declare itself open in l996.
It’s now a virtual reality village that you can actually experience. The potter who sits creating his horses now exports them to the US and Australia. His repertoire includes frogs and giant insects that he has observed, as well as hippos that he has only seen in picture books. “Buy the insect,” he advises, “it will frighten away the mosquitoes.” When you get to the Kerala section, you find a traditional coconut seller waiting to hack open a fresh coconut and offer its creamy white flesh to you. Outside the Karnataka section the troupe of Yakshagana dancers is in celebratory mode, while this year’s prize winner for folk performance is a Dalit artist from Andhra Pradesh, who has revived a vanishing art form.
As it celebrates its tenth anniversary Dakshinachitra exudes a new belief in itself. In the last year, it has attracted more than 94,000 visitors. This is something of a record for Dakshinachitra, often seen as an elitist enclave in the ocean of popular entertainment arcades that attract the regular tourist crowds to the east coast highway all the way from Chennai to Mahabalipuram. There have been taunts of the “Disneyfication” of Tamil culture, as it has often been a venue for marriages and receptions that engage with its ‘rural’ atmosphere in an attempt to create what might be seen as a return to a person’s roots. In the process Dakshinachitra has been accused of becoming a playground for the bien-pensant Indian elite.
“This seems to smack of an upper class fetish with romanticizing a false notion of rustic simplicity”, says a visitor who did not wish to be named.
Its founder Deborah Thiagarajan is American by birth, though by marriage she belongs to a well-established Chettiar family and is thereby a part of the dominant merchant community of Nattukotai Chettiars that has played a leading role in the cultural affairs of Tamil Nadu.
“I think the major achievement of these last 10 years has been that Dakshinachitra has become a part of the community,” explains Thiagarajan. “We now have a large group of people from the middle class who are our visitors. And no, it’s not the foreign tourists who are coming here now as much as the South Indian visitors, who are beginning to take a pride in their own heritage.”
There is now such a vast divide between the rural and urban populations, that previously, while every city dweller would talk of going back to his or her “native place” at least once during the year, and most definitely for weddings, births and death ceremonies, that link has for the most part been broken as families become nuclear, or the ties with grand-parents and ancestral homes no longer hold.
It was as a result of seeing the rapid decline of the once splendid homes of the Nattukottai Chettiars in the Ramnad district, that she felt inspired to do something to preserve not just the buildings but also their way of life.
Now, strangely enough, because of what people have seen at a place like this, there is not only a move to revive methods of shell plaster that was once a feature of Chettinad, but an interest in tourism in that area that has led to all kinds of discoveries, from basketry, to bead-work, the preservation of natural food materials and the gorgeous textiles, or Chettinad sarees, that may also been seen in all their variety in the Textile Hall at the museum.
“We don’t like to call ourselves a museum,” she says, “because we want this to be a process of self-discovery. How do you project the culture of a society such as this that has so many layers? By being as inclusive as you can. You can open a window whereby a person who has come here will be able to recognize something when he or she goes to another place and finds a link that will suddenly become meaningful. Our contemporary art gallery might seem strange to some of our visitors, but they are still willing to look at what we have displayed and this leads them to ask questions.”
Thiagarajan emphasizes the fact that they have had the most success with the programmes to integrate school-children from various strata. Particularly during the spring festival, or vasantha vizha, the children learn to play with shadow puppets, kites, bead making and pottery.
Similarly, one of the projects that Dakshinachitra has initiated is in documenting the cultural, social and demographic profile, of the neighbouring temple town of Thiruporur with the help of the students of the town. The publication that is in both Tamil and English is an excellent document of its kind for the simple reason that it shows a personal involvement and sympathy with the subject.
“Culture is never something neutral. It has to be a dynamic process. For instance you can ask the question: Who is a bhoomi-putra? There is no one answer to that, but we try to place as many answers that we can find within the limits of space, time and the limits of our resources. I see it as a challenge and I think that Dakshinachitra represents a creative answer to this challenge, one that involves our craftsmen and women in such a manner that they don’t get left out. I firmly believe that without them we wouldn’t be here ourselves.”
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