Lily Vijayaraghavan has a rare collection of antique pieces.
In every period artefact is embedded man’s ancient memories of rites, myths and facts of everyday life, a creative search which brings out what historian Niel MacGregor so poetically puts it “the necessary poetry of things”. It is this music and poetry which pervades the collector of decorative art objects Lily Vijayaraghavan’s house from the entrance, flanked by a 12 ft Garuda lamp and an antique Vaishnavi statue in stone to rooms full of old pieces used by countless generations in their everyday lives: exquisitely shaped and etched brass ‘patrams’ and votive lamps, brass and bronze icons of great artistry, Thanjavur art, stone and stucco apsaras, gods and goddesses, saints seats and shringar items. “Every house in India could be a mini museum of ancient artefacts” says the collector. “These things were used as part of life, festivals and performances and passed on to the next generations . It is only in the past century that old ‘patrams’ and valuable artefacts were melted down, sold or destroyed, or simply thrown away.”
One such discarded stucco apsara which was literally flung down during the demolition of a Chettinad home is today among Lily’s favourite pieces. “Such stucco apsaras often decorated parapet walls of old homes and I just picked up this beauty from a pile of construction debris. What attracted me was the courtesan’s sensuous yet innocent smile, the flirtatious tilt of the head and the incredible workmanship which has gone into arranging her hair style and jewellery. Everyone laughed when I actually paid for her. Today such stucco sculptural pieces are greatly in demand.”
Fascinating stories, emerge as Lily picks up ‘special’ pieces and meticulously narrates the ‘biography’ of each of the artefacts using the piece almost as a tool of recreating history . Lily points out to a statue and say “Look at this brass ‘kannadi vigraham’ with a prabha valli. It is a mirror which is not a mirror! Found mostly in Nambudri homes, the centre piece does not throw back one’s reflection but is an aid to meditation. You close your eyes and reflect on your inner self to find answers. I think the piece captures the essence of the Hindu philosophy of ‘tat-vam-asi.”
Nearby stands another favourite, a metal breast plate used by Theyyam dancers. A puja ritual, the Theyyam culture includes tribal and other themes as also spirit, tree and snake worship though Brahminical thought dominates in the form of Vishnu and Siva. The dancer comes in full make-up and costume including the breast plate before the deity Bhagwati and in the process of dance metamorphoses into the deity herself. “Hence the female breast plate” says Lily. “This is a beautifully evocative hand crafted piece, which could be a hundred years old.”
We come next to a gentle exquisitely carved and painted wood panel depicting Rama’s coronation. It was painted in mellow vegetable colours and the figures seem to come to life in delicate cameos of happy faces and beautifully movement.
Equally subtle is a two ft wooden Kamadhenu which the collector calls one of her best pieces. “Kamadhenu is very popular in Hindu mythology and I was attracted by the charm of the figure as also the subtle colours used in bringing out its beauty.” The 12ft Garuda ‘deepastambham’ lamp is another brilliant piece of metal craft which she bought at an auction. Says Lily, “It is a rare piece that has a tortoise both at the top and the base.”
And what about the tiny sensuous dancing figure which grace the entrance wall and which interior designers use to cover up entire ceilings? “I’m glad they are being used in interior statement. In fact the past few decades have seen a spurt in antique collection which is one way of preserving the past. My advice to serious collectors is to collect one piece at a time to suit their particular personality and to display and maintain the old pieces properly. It helps if they are driven by passion as I was. In my case I feel the divine helped me otherwise how could my journey as a decorative art ‘treasure hunter’ be so fulfilling and successful”.
Walking past ‘sevai makers’ standing on three-peacock legs and a brass fan petrified in its movement to create breeze one wonders how these nearly vanished relics of our civilisation could be passed down to posterity. And some of the rare antique pieces are seen at Lily Vijayaraghavan’s house - 1, Kamakshi Nagar, Alwarpet, Chennai.