A boom seems to be reverberating throughout Mamallapuram thanks to the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture.

Mamallapuram, that was once the capital of the mighty Pallavas, is a hymn to the enduring beauty of stone. The sculptures here have been bravely combating the onslaught of the sea and salt-laden winds for centuries.

More than 1,300 years after the Pallava rulers and its great sculptors were swallowed by the tides of time, Mamallapuram still resounds with the sound of chisel on stone. Hundreds of artisans today carve out images of the gods and make decorative artefacts from granite here.

The road on the way to the popular tourist resort is lined with sculpture outlets. The quality may vary but for those who have not visited the area for some time, the boom in activity is a revelation. Images of Ganesa, Devi,Vishnu, Hanuman and dwarapalakas make their temporary abode in these workshops before being sent to various destinations within the country or abroad. From huge organisations dealing in crores of rupees to one-man outlets functioning from huts, the sculpture boom seems to be reverberating throughout the area.

The flourishing of the art can be traced to the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture set up in Mamallapuram in the 1950s by the Government of Tamil Nadu. Vaidyanatha Stapathi, the hereditary sculptor, headed the school. He was succeeded by his son V. Ganapati Stapathi. With his vision and dynamic leadership, Ganapati Stapathi moulded sculptors and architects for more than three decades. They went on to make successful careers for themselves and helped promote the art by building temples and supplying images for temples within the country and abroad.

The skill

Vellayyan in a wayside shed says he learnt the skill from his proprietor who in turn was trained at the College of Architecture. Damodaran in the outlet nearby is a student of the college. Images of huge dwarapalakas are being fashioned in his shop for a temple in Andhra Pradesh.

In another shop, Ramesh is surrounded by idols. “The work is difficult but because we do it for temples, we get fulfilment, ‘atma tripti’,” he says.

Animal figures to decorate gardens also exhibit the skill of the artisans. Elephants, peacocks, lions and crocodiles lie in forced harmony in the sheds. “Those who drive by stop and enquire about the pieces,” the artisans tell me. And quite often like the American in R.K. Narayan’s story who happily wants to purchase the Ayyanar horse, they leave with an image or a piece for their garden.

“I fashioned a panel of various animals for the Vandalur Zoo, 35 pieces in all,” says Anbu, the proprietor of a medium-sized outlet.

Shops are located within Mamallapuram that have been selling stone sculptures and artefacts for decades. Palani whose tiny shop is crammed with sculptures says, “I have another pattari (workshop) at Punjeri, 3 km from here. This is my sales outlet. Apart from idols, I make statues of personalities and leaders.

“Too many pattarais have sprung up in recent times and quality has been affected. The clientele too is now less discerning,” he regrets. “As guides exploit foreigners, bargaining has become the norm, and we suffer.” But this works both ways, I discover, as a worker in another outlet near the Shore Temple shows me a lion as big as a mouse and coolly demands Rs. 3,000 mistaking me for a tourist!

Says K. Dakshinamoorthy, nephew of Ganapati Stapathi, who runs a workshop and sales outlet, “Ganapati Stapathi revived the Chola form of sculpture and gave it a structure through a proper course.”

The infrastructure should be improved as sculpture in Mamallapuram generates tourism and revenue for the State, says Dakshinamoorthy. Proper research and development is needed at the College of Architecture, feel those in the field.

The ASI must safeguard the names of ancient sculptors engraved on a rock in Punjeri on the roadside by putting up an enclosure, says Dakshinamoorthy.

Almost all the artisans voice the problem of obtaining granite for their art.

The fine dust generated by the machine is a huge health hazard, they add. A sculptor village must be set up so that artisans can work and sell their products there, say the craftsmen.

Course of creativity

“We offer courses in three streams -- B.Tech in traditional architecture, BFA in sculpture, and in drawing and painting,” says Dr. M. Gunasegaran, principal, of the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture in Mamallapuram who is an ex-student of the institution. The college, affiliated to the University of Madras, is located in a sprawling campus that can lend itself to creative activity.

“We have 90 students and studying in the institution about 20 per cent of them whom are from families of traditional stapathis. The fee is Rs. 1,300 a year.” He adds that more advertisements for the courses will bring in more students. No one who has learnt this art has failed to find work, he declares. “But the degree of success depends on the talent.”

The Tamil style of sculpture which includes Chola, Pallava, Pandya and Nayak, is taught at the college, he says. He points out ways to generate employment for those trained in the school. “In Tamil Nadu, there are 3,000 temples. These students can be engaged as architects and engineers in the HR and CE and Archaeology departments as they are trained in temple architecture. Now, there are only a few posts for stapathis in the Government. That number of posts can be increased. Our students are engaged by the ASI in temple renovation but more such opportunities can be provided for them.

“Our students are employed by the Government of Andhra Pradesh in the HR and CE Department as chief stapathis, and sculptors, draughtsmen, designers and temple architects. The Tamil Nadu Government can also provide them with more such opportunities.”

Gunasegaran also feels a Central Institute of Traditional Architecture should be set up by the Government of India. “Each State should be allotted five seats.” The principal who has a passion for traditional architecture feels it should be propagated. “Traditional architecture should be followed while building houses and commercial complexes as it suits our climatic conditions perfectly and is also aesthetically pleasing.”

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