It's not just the story of Tyagaraja, but also the effort to conserve heritage that is told in V.K. Rajamani and David Shulman's book “The Mucukunda Murals”

The paintings leap at you from the pages in beautiful compositions of red, ochre, jade green and black. The mellow brown border throws them into greater relief, and the scenes spring to life. Published by the Prakriti Foundation, the book “The Mucukunda Murals in the Tyagarajasvami Temple, Tiruvarur” by V.K. Rajamani and David Shulman records a rich segment of the art and the heritage of Tamil Nadu, and seeks to hand it down to succeeding generations. The fine photographs are by Rajamani, while Shulman has written a brilliant introduction on the temple and its deity. Maya Tevet Dayan, a scholar who worked under the guidance of Shulman for her Ph.D, has contributed an essay on the experience of viewing these paintings.

Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation, who has a special bond with the temple and the deity, undertook to publish the book. When he also embarked on the task of having the priceless art conserved, the effort began to bear shades of Mucukunda's arduous attempts to succeed in his divine mission. The INTACH team headed by Madhu Rani K.P. took on the conservation exercise but enormous hurdles had to be overcome, mainly of the bureaucratic kind. Madhu Rani's write up on the effort is included in the book.

The murals on the ceiling of the Devasiriya Mandapam lift up the mind and spirit. They narrate the story of Sri Tyagaraja and how the monkey-faced Chola king Mucukunda Chakravarti brought the image of Sri Tyagaraja to earth. Through the portrayal of dancers, elephants and processional scenes, the life of the 17th Century is revealed in these paintings that belong to the late Nayak or early Maratha period.

“I showed Shulman the photographs I had taken of these paintings, when he met me in 1973. He immediately suggested that they should be brought out as a book. Much later, Shulman and I went to Tiruvarur and I took more photographs of the paintings. The task proved to be very difficult,” explains Rajamani who was in the pharmaceutical business but has had a passion for photography from the 1960s. He built a reputation for himself in capturing monuments and temples, especially through assignments for popular Tamil journals. Rajamani developed a love for heritage after photographing the bronzes of Tamil Nadu for a book by archaeologist R. Nagaswamy and also executing the photographs for two books by Nanditha Krishna, one on the arts and crafts of Tamil Nadu and another on the painted manuscripts in the Saraswati Mahal library in Thanjavur. “When I first visited the temple, the mandapam was used to store the huge coils of rope to pull the temple chariot. The vahanas (mounts for the deity) were also stored here. The floor was littered with rubbish and carcases of cats. I engaged a few workers and had the place cleaned,” says Rajamani. “But since the paintings were all on the ceiling, I had to lie on the floor and move my mat bit by bit while I photographed them. Since the light was poor, I brought plain white sheets and used them to reflect the sunlight on to the panels. The photographs were all taken before the restoration was undertaken by INTACH. Maya helped me put the photographs in chronological order. All the paintings are accompanied by the old Tamil script which Shulman and archaeologist Chandramurti read with the help of a magnifying glass,” says Rajamani who was president of the Photography Society of Madras and has received the organisation's Lifetime Achievement Award. “Now that the book has been published, I feel happy and fulfilled,” smiles the frail 76-year-old photographer who persevered despite setbacks to his health.

Love for the Tamil world

Shulman's love for South Indian languages brought him to Tamil Nadu. The Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem says he fell in love with the Tamil world as soon as he and his wife came to Madras in 1972 — “the people, the music, the food, the landscape, the art and the poetry — even the weather!” “I first visited Tiruvarur on a day of very heavy rain in January 1976,” he recalls. “I returned many times and became familiar with the paintings which were then in a much better state of preservation before the tremendous damage done by smoke, fungus, dirt and, above all, sheer neglect.” Later, when he was writing a book on the Nayak period along with other scholars, the paintings interested him again. “They are so vivid and colourful — you can see the streets of Tiruvarur in the late 17th Century in them. These paintings are masterpieces of world art and should be declared as such by UNESCO,” he says fervently. “Under no circumstances should they be repainted as is sometimes done in South Indian temples.”

The Tiruvarur paintings are remarkable because of their size and originality but there are many other murals from that period in temples in the South which need to be preserved carefully, he points out. “I have had many books published but I feel most proud to have been part of this one. Designer Vinay Jain has done a remarkable job.”

The book was released recently in the temple, and will be launched in Chennai later this year.

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