Conservator Dhenuga, art critic and author, feels historic temples are not maintained because of indifference.

The spate of stories on smuggling of Indian, especially South Indian artefacts, must have shocked thousands of devotees. “It is not a new phenomenon”, says my friend, art critic and conservator, Dhenuga, from Kumbakonam. “It has been going on for centuries. The reputed archaeologist Robert Sewell of the Archaeological Survey of India submitted a report (Vol. II) to the then Madras Province on the subject, in 1881. He had listed more than 300 temples in the most endangered state. None cared then and the situation has not changed even now. Kumbakonam Ramaswamy temple, Chakrapani temple, Darasuram temple and Iravatheeswarar temple have all been mentioned in this report. Even the Mahamakham tank finds a place in the report! It is our callous attitude and indifference in conserving our heritage that are to be blamed.

“The Konerirajapuram temple, where the biggest Nataraja icon is kept, has no Executive Officer. No watchman either! It is a 1400 year old temple, where Gnanasambandar and Tirunavukkarasar had sung in praise of the Lord. Sembian Ma Devi had converted the brick structure into a beautiful stone construction. It is a pity that the Tamils are not taking interest in safeguarding their own temples!” he laments.

“More idols are kept in the London museum than in our State. They have been carried away when the British ruled us!” adds Dhenuga.

The other grouse of Dhenuga is the maintenance of these ancient temples, where marble floors have been laid after removing the stone slabs. “Go to the Ambal sannadhi of Saranathar temple. Visit the Perumal temple in Mannargudi, where the Sengamalathayar Sannadhi’s floor has been laid with marble. The stone slabs were from the Achuthappa Naik times. Marbles are slippery and the elderly will find it difficult to walk on it during rainy days. Stone slabs are most suitable in these places!” says Dhenuga.

His apprehension of the safety of Maragatha Lingam in the Vedaranyeswarar Temple worth crores of rupees is also understandable. “The State archaeology department should protect it,” says he.

Chola sculpture

“Similarly, the Gaja Samhara Murthy in Vazhuvur Siva temple is one of the finest pieces of Chola sculpture. Only once in a year there is abhishekam for this deity. It is uncared for and not acquired by the ASI. Since it is under the control of HR&CE it lacks proper protection,” says Dhenuka.

“The ‘padi-thurais’ built during the times of Achuthappa Naik and Raghunatha Naik in Thanjavur Palli Agraharam, Tiruvaiyaru, Swamimalai, Mayuram and Kumbakonam are neglected. They are nearly 400 years old. The neeraazhi mandapams too face the same fate. Should we not have a sense of heritage?” he asks.

Dhenuga feels sorry for the hundreds of visitors who come to see the chariots (thaer) as they are covered by tin sheets and locked. Especially for the visitors from foreign countries, who are disappointed. “The minute wood carving work on these chariots is breath-taking. There are measurements like ten taalams for Perumal or Eswaran Koil chariots and nine taalams for Ambal chariots,” he claims. Dhenuga suggests that like European countries, we should have an open museum concept, with adequate protection.

“Every time the road is laid around the Chakrapani temple in Kumbakonam, the temple goes down at least one and a half feet. Thus, with four times of road laying, the temple has gone down six feet!” he says.

Dhenuga claims, “ The temple vahanams are in a neglected state. Take, for instance, the Annapakshi Vahanam of Konerirajapuram temple. Rishaba Vahanam and several others are in a shoddy state. Pullamboothangudi Perumal temple Vahanam is no exception. It is still worse in the case of preserving the original paintings. In Patteeswaram temple, the Nayak period paintings have been erased! They do not know the value of herbal colours. I remember former Principal of the College of Arts Mr. Dhanapal, along with his students, led a protest against the white washing done by the authorities.”

According to scholar Dr. Prema Nandakumar, “The artists of the past worked with a sense of religious mission. What they created was an offering – a personal one to the Divine. Thus even the sculpting of an elephant for a pillar or the painting of a lotus for a pond was charged with spiritual élan.”

As a crusader with multi-disciplinary approach on the preservation of objects of art and sculpture, Dhenuga feels sorry that apart from large scale idol thefts, even the Agama sastra has lost its importance in temples. When the flag is hoisted, artists should recite five ragas such as Saranga, Bilahari, Saveri and so on. The ragas to be played in the morning, afternoon, evening and night are quite different. This rite is not followed in many of the temples. “Thus, the raga traditions are given a go by. Now there are machine melams in several temples! There are no mangala vadyams. There are many students who have completed the nagaswaram-tavil course. They could be hired for the job,” he says.

Dhenuga has a right to point out these deficiencies, as he hails from the family of nagaswara vidwans and is a cousin of the legendary singer Madurai Somasundaram. T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, in a way, is his paternal uncle (Periyappa). He has grown up in Swamimalai where nearly 300 sthapatis sculpted and cast figures of the Hindu pantheon.

On his pseudonym

Dhenuga’s original name is Srinivasan, after his grandfather, ‘Arutpa’ Srinivasa Pillai. He chose the name of the raga immortalised by Tyagaraja in his kriti ‘Teliyaleru Rama’ as his pseudonym when he took to writing.

Dhenuga is currently engaged in collaborating with the documentary filmmaker Amshan Kumar, as resource person in charge of research, for documenting the life and times of Yazhpanam Dakshinamurthy Pillai, for the producer Padmanabha Iyer of London.

Dhenuga has authored several books on art, art appreciation and art criticism and has won several awards from the State Government and other literary bodies. When ‘Vannangal Vadivangal’ was published two decades ago, well known Tamil critic and writer Ka.Na. Subramaniam praised Dhenuga’s work as ‘an oasis in the Tamil desert.’ His book ‘Sirpa Mozhi’ on Vidyashankar Sthapathi was released in Mauritius by the Governor-General. These two books have been acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress as research material for Tamil studies for countries offering such facilities.

Graduating in Chemistry, Dhenuga had to wait for a couple of years to get a job. However, he utilised the time to study modern art in the College of Arts and Crafts, Kumbakonam. He has participated and chaired seminars in Tamil meets and conferences. As an employee of SBI, Dhenuga has won State Bank Literary Awards four times.

Dhenuga was interviewed in 2000 by BBC, London, for his views on a few maestros of South Indian music. Dhenuga has many books (translated into English and French) and articles to his credit, including the ones on modern sculptor Henry Moore, painters Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian. While writer Vittal Rao had praised him for his essays on modern art as a whiff of fresh air, the Tamil writer Karichan Kunju had showered encomiums on Dhenuga for his detailed study of Vidyashankar Sthapathi’s work in his book ‘Sirpamozhi’.

(Dhenuga can be contacted at 9443516202)