Tag Archives: heritage

The Mucukunda Murals

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Two hours by car from Tanjavur, through a meandering scenic route of paddy fields, bucolic groves and glimpses of the sun-dappled Kaveri river, is the temple town of Tiruvarur: birthplace of Carnatic music’s triumvirate of doyens (the composers Kakarla Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri), and the site of the crown jewel of the South Indian Shaivite cult, the Sri Tyagarajasvami temple. Estimated to be around 1300 years old, the temple blossomed under the aegis of the major reconstructions of the Chola dynasty, and gained prominence owing to the many travelling bards who, seized by revelations, were moved to song within it. In the modern era, however, certain parts of it fell to neglect, most notably the Devasiriya Mandapam, an auxiliary hall within which is contained a trove of radiant 17th century ceiling murals.

Up until three years ago, the murals were in a rapidly deteriorating state owing to water seepage, fire, human negligence and other factors. When Ranvir Shah, the maverick behind the Chennai-based arts and culture organisation Prakriti Foundation, was told by temple authorities a decade ago of plans to whitewash the paintings, he managed to stave off this travesty for eight years, when the necessary permissions for restoration were secured and a collaborative effort with the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) could begin.

He wasn’t the only one concerned with preserving the stunningly detailed, exquisitely painted murals. The Indologist David Shulman, in what he calls “an act of despair”, visited in 2006 with the photographer V.K. Rajamani so as to document the images before they were lost forever. Shulman and Shah, among others, met – propitiously, as anyone associated with this project now says – and from this was born a major undertaking to restore and preserve what are now known as the Mucukunda Murals.

Dating to the late Nayaka/early Maratha period, the murals narrate, over the course of 50 panels, the mythology of how Tyagarajasvami – or Shiva in his mode as householder and king, flanked by his consort and child-prince in the iconic Somaskanda configuration – came to reside in Tiruvarur. Legend has it that the monkey-faced Chola ruler Mucukunda brought the deity from the heavens at his own request. Tyagarajasvami, who before this had rested on the chest of Vishnu in the cosmic ocean, moving in tandem to that deity’s breath, was bored in Indra’s heaven. This god of momentum and relocation desired settlement – specifically, in a locale already associated with Kamalambal, a powerful goddess with Tantric significance, as well as a different, more primitive aspect of Shiva as lord of the anthill. When Mucukunda, having helped Indra defeat a demon, is offered a boon, Tyagarasvami secretly communicates to him the desire to be taken to Tiruvarur.

Indra, hesitant to part with the god so quickly, has six more identical figures made, and asks Mucukunda to choose the original. Again, Tyagarajasvami gives Mucukunda a signal (different sources suggest a smile, a wink, or an intuitive understanding), thus allowing him to leave the ennui of heaven, and make the town his abode.

The origin story of Tyagarajasvami thus exalts him as a god who chooses his own tribe, and this sentiment remains strongly ensconced among those involved in the restoration of the murals. The release of Shulman and Rajamani’s elegant coffee table tome, The Mucukunda Murals, on January 26 in the Devasiriya Mandapam celebrated the near-completion of the restoration work, and was well-attended by a large gathering of scholars, aesthetes and local devotees, who carried mirrored trays as they walked beneath the murals so as to look at them without strain.

In brief lectures, a panel of noted experts on Tiruvarur – Professor Rajeshwari Ghose, Professor Saskia Kersenboom, Professor Davesh Soneji and Professor Shulman – shared their personal connections to the temple and its deity. Kersenboom, author of the pathbreaking 1987 book Nityasumangali, spoke about the “cinematic flashback” she experienced during her first visit to the temple in 1975, during which she saw the devadasis in procession as they had been in the generations before their art was banned. Ghose quoted an anonymous Tyagarajasvami kavacham, in which the poet tells God to take away anything from him but his ability to appreciate the arts, because it is through them that he experiences divinity. She also credited the temple for having been the wellspring of the Tamil bhakti movement, inspiring the pilgrimages of the Nayanmars and Alwars and giving the collective Tamil consciousness a meaningful identity.

At no point was the numinous quality of the events that led to the restoration, and indeed to that particular day of celebration itself, underplayed. In what is perhaps an unusual method of doing things in this modern (and that too, academic) context, the lectures ended to coincide with the Sayaraktsha Pooja, the dusk prayer to the deity. The entourage reassembled at the sanctum sanctorum, chanting Om Namashivaya Namaha in front of the glittering Tyagarajasvami, before the evening’s performances began.

Evoking the panegyrical element of all pre-colonial temple performances, the concert was highlighted by the magnificent recital of a portion of the mohamana varnam by dancer Shymala Mohanraj. A disciple of the legendary devadasi Balasaraswathi and one of the foremost torchkeepers of that lineage, her supreme command of the stage and consummate, unostentatious grace were breathtaking to behold. A deeply endearing rendering of kuruvanji songs by Tilakamma, who is also of devadasi heritage but no longer able to dance, also served to fortify the idea that age is an externality – beauty and passion transcend such limitations. A nagaswaram presentation by T.K. Selvaganapathy and T.S. Palaniappan (who trace their musical lineage to 22 generations), accompanied in part by a padam by Kersenboom, and as a performance by eminent vocalist Aruna Sairam rounded off the evening. At the heart of the entire ceremony was an exploration of lineage in all its forms – hereditary, intangible, karmic and incidental. But most importantly, a new understanding of lineage, stripped of hegemony and baggage and brought to the simplest level: the absolutely personal epiphany of the workings of cosmic leela, and one’s place within it.

In the afterglow of this rare, possibly miraculous, story of triumph over the forces of aesthetic ignorance and bureaucratic negligence, it’s easy to forget that a multitude of precious structures throughout India face dissimilar fates. The Mucukunda Murals have been saved, for now, by “the co-operation of public and private interests in temple conservation”, as Soneji puts it. “I hope this is a model that will catch on”. Perhaps God only winks at a chosen few, but the responsibility for the protection and maintenance of our architectural and artistic heritage lies with all who care to watch, refusing to allow such losses in our own lifetimes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Mourning the Marina

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That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.

Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.

This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.

Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.

I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.

I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.

One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.

I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.

When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.

It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.

Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.

This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).

Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Burning Breast: Kannagi To Kovalan

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I had a lovely Sunday morning. For one thing, I woke up early — I’m a heavy sleeper and am always inordinately proud of myself when I catch the sunrise. Also, it was the last day of Madras Week — phew! And although I was late, I managed to make it to Eric Miller/The World Storytelling Institute’s Living Statues event at 7.30am. Spoken word in the form of soliloquys in persona in front of six statues that punctuate the main road along Marina Beach. And then the beach itself, with two friends, and breakfast at Rathna Cafe in Triplicane… I fucking love Madras, from the bottom of my silly little heart. :)

Eric asked me to read his soliloquy for Auvvaiyar, as well what I had written the night before for Kannagi. Or as Kannagi, rather. I’ll write more about the Living Statues event when I recap Madras Week on the whole.

And how could I forget the lovely little synchronicity that met us as we got into an auto to leave the beach? The driver’s address, painted where Narain’s knees met the back of the driver’s seat, was Nedunchezhiyan Colony.

If you are not familiar with the story of Kannagi and Kovalan, please see this.

The Burning Breast: Kannagi to Kovalan

What is it to me if there are good women
or good men or gods in this city, now
that you are gone.

When you kissed me I remembered
all the lives that poured out of us,
and I remembered how to honour water.

When you kissed me I remembered
what death felt like, and
I remembered how to honour air.

When you kissed me I remembered
the clay of the body, and
I remembered how to honour earth.

When you kissed me I remembered
that my sins would turn to cinders, and
I remembered how to honour fire.

Listen, husband. Only the sky will
take no side. Let them call me
bitch, witch, menace, terrorist.
Let them call me mad, bad, vindictive,
frigid. Let them name me, claim me,
blame me and defame me. Guard their
coast with stone dolls in my likeness.
Beat their women so their bruises
sting and rhyme with my acclaim.
Let them. Let them think they have me tamed.

But with this burning breast, these bloodshot eyes, I raise
my voice, and I say to you now, all I want, all I am is this:

wife.

– – –

I had shared this poem with friends as soon as it was written, and I thought it might be good to share this exchange, in case you have the same question in mind:

Q: excellent, but
All I am is this; wife
All?
surely not all, but – I am this; wife

SM: Thanks! I’m curious — are you familiar with the Silapathikaram? In context, the idea of Kannagi as simply human, a woman mad with grief, is something very much overlooked. Here in Tamil Nadu, she has been co-opted into various other roles — worshipped as a goddess, held up as a bastion of conservative chastity, as a bastion of radical feminism, a role model for citizen rights, criticized for weakness, glorified for strength… any number of grand meanings have been read into this character. But the commonplace anguish of a widow, extraordinary as the events told are, is what interested me when I set out to write this.

One More Day To Go

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I’m exhausted — and we have one day left of Madras Week! Expect long recap with pictorial evidence sometime in the coming week, but for now just wanted to announce a spoken word event tomorrow morning IN ADDITION to our final sinful reading (Lust for last, obviously).

As you may know, I love persona poetry, and I love the coast, and I love any morning when I wake up in time to see the sun rise. So am looking forward to this.

Living Statues of Marina Beach walking tour.

Sunday August 24, 7.30am at the Kannagi statue.

Featuring brief performances and talks at the statues of
1) Kannagi, 2) NSC Bose, 3) Thiruvalluvar, 4) GU Pope,
5) Bharathidasan, and 6) Avvaiyar.  English and Tamil.
90 mins.  Free.  Facilitated by the World Storytelling
Institute, 98403 94282.

MADRAS WEEK AT VANILLA PLACE

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Celebrate Madras/Chennai city’s 369th birthday with seven evenings of photography, folksongs and poetry! Seven nights of still life, song and sinful spoken word, saluting our city by the sea.

August 18 2008 – August 24 2008

MADRAS WEEK EVENTS AT VANILLA PLACE, MYLAPORE

CURATED BY CHANDRACHOODAN GOPALAKRISHNAN
AND SHARANYA MANIVANNAN,
WITH THE PARTICIPATION OF THE WORLD STORYTELLING INSTITUTE.

PHOTO EXHIBITION AND SALE

Opening night: August 18 2008

Time: 7pm

From August 18 to August 24 , organised by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and The Chennai Photowalk. Photos are of Chennai, as seen through the eyes of the photographers who participated in the first nine photowalks. All photos exhibited are available for purchase.

The Chennai Photowalk is a movement of the residents of Chennai to preserve the city’s heritage in the form of photos. Young and old, professional and the hobbyist, photographers of all description meet, walk and capture a view of the city mostly overlooked.

“THE SEA STORY”: A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE ON OPENING NIGHT

A special storytelling drama with folksongs by the Nochikuppam seafishing community, facilitated by the World Storytelling Institute and hosted by Eric Miller.

“The Sea Story” summary: One evening, a mother sings a lullaby to a child (Thalattu pattu). That night, some men go in a kattumaram to fish in the sea (Rowing pattu).

One man is lost in a storm, and some women on shore lament for the lost man (Oppari pattu). Finally, the lost man re-appears – he was rescued by a sea-turtle! – and the community members are filled with joy (Celebration pattu).

SPOKEN WORD READINGS AND OPEN MICS

From August 18 to August 24 at 8pm every night, hosted by Sharanya Manivannan.

August 18 – “Cities+Pride” (Opening Night)
August 19 – “Cities+Envy”
August 20 – “Cities+Wrath”
August 21 – “Cities+Sloth”
August 22 – “Cities+Greed”
August 23 – “Cities+Gluttony”
August 24 – “Cities+Lust”

Local poets both famous and soon-to-be-famous explore the idea of cities as hubs of sins from different angles. Debauchery or divine redemption? A bit of both is promised each night, along with poetry and prose both original and admired. Performers include Kuttirevathi, Vivek Narayanan, Deesh Mariwala and Sharanya Manivannan.

Open mic readings are open to all. Please contact sharanya.manivannan@gmail.com.

About the organisers

Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is a writer (of prose, poetry and carefully worded commercial fiction) and a photographer (of people, places and the occasional abstract) from Chennai. His great-grandfather was an epigraphist, translator and the first Tamil novelist. These genes, always unpredictable, waited three generations to surface in Chandrachoodan, causing him to take a great interest in his city and its heritage. Which in turn took form as a monthly photowalk.

As a spoken word artist, Sharanya Manivannan has performed to critical and popular acclaim at dozens of venues, including an abandoned pier, a cemetery and the 11th century Borobudur Temple, as well as more conventional locations. Her book of poems, Witchcraft, will be published this year, and carries a foreword from celebrated Sri Lankan-American poet Indran Amirthanayagam that describes it as “bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils… a glorious, chilling and sensual debut”. Sharanya is committed to the creation of a spoken word scene in Chennai, and regularly co-organises and hosts events that encourage the open mic format, in which anyone willing to share their work is welcome.

The World Storytelling Institute was founded by Eric Miller and Jeeva Raghunath in Chennai, in December 2007.  Mr. Eric is the director of the WSI; Ms. Jeeva is the director of its section on storytelling for/by/with children.  The WSI’s mission is to facilitate training in, performance of, and discussion about, forms of storytelling.  In Tamil Nadu, three traditional styles of storytelling are 1) Kathaiyum Pattum (Story and Song); 2) Villupattu (Bow Song); and 3) Katha Kalak Chebam, also known as Harikatha (God Story).  In cultures around the world, there are similar styles.  We seek to help these styles be meaningful and useful in the modern world.  Eric is Assistant Professor of Story and Storytelling at the Image College of Art, Animation, and Technology (Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad), which trains students in the design of 3D Animation, Cinema Visual Effects, and Computer-video-Internet games. He is near completion of a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): his dissertation concerns the use of videoconferencing for educational and performance applications. Originally from New York City, Eric has settled in Chennai.  He is married to Chennai native Magdalene Jeyarathnam, the founder-director of Chennai’s Center for Counseling, and they have a daughter.

Venue

Vanilla Place, No. 8/57, 1st Street Luz Avenue, near Nageswara Park, Mylapore.

All events are free and open to the public.

For further details, please contact Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan – 9884467463

Chennai Sangamam

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What I liked best about the Chennai Sangamam, performances aside, was how it had the air of a real festival. Performances weren’t preceded by speeches in English about culture and tradition and excavation. There were no tickets. No formal rustle of sarees and elite arts-patronage gossip. The night I attended, at Nateson Park, there was no stage. The crowds followed the sound of drums; circles formed of their own accord, within which performers stampeded and sang and shone.

I loved it. I loved how in my flat slippers, I could barely see above people’s heads. I loved how I could only hear the action most of the time, could barely photograph a thing, could only catch glimpses of bright costumes between the throng of bodies that was the standing audience. This was street performance at its truest. This was real, unfettered culture.

The festival was initiated last year, and mainly features folk dances, music and food from around Tamil country. Held over a week at various locations around the city, mostly public spaces like parks and beaches, I think it’s a wonderful way to encourage interest in heritage. Free of the co-opting and monopolizing that overpowers what we urbanites know of heritage, there’s a certain liberty to things. A certain authenticity.

Now that I’m on one of my sporadic trips to the land of the employed and days that end at 4am are no longer an option, I only managed to go one night of Chennai Sangamam. It’s an amazing addition to the city’s calendar of events, and I’m hoping that it turns into something as entrenched into our ethos as the Margazhi season — sans the cloying institutionalization.