Self-taught historian, temple photographer and artist S. Gurumurthy tells that nothing saddens him more than seeing glorious works of art lying in the dust
Back from a day trip to the Kamarasavalli temple in Ariyalur District, S. Gurumurthy can’t decide whether he should rejoice that he saw this exquisite early Chola temple, built between the 9th and 12th Centuries, or mourn its shocking neglect. “There are so many inscriptions, such beautiful miniature sculptures…it is crumbling right before our eyes,” he murmurs.
Gurumurthy is a businessman who makes coatings for industrial products. But temple art and architecture is his raison d’etre. He has lost count of the number of temples he has visited across South India — thousands, he thinks.
Gurumurthy says: “When I was old enough to have my own money, I would buy, beg or borrow books about these temples and would read up on them. Then I’d visit them. Comparing the written word with what I saw in front of me was an eye opener.”
His temple love goes back to the time he was seven years old. “My grandfather would take me along to temples. He was well informed. He would point out sculptures to me and tell me from which period they were. That is how I learnt to distinguish a Pallava piece from a Chola one, and so on.” Gurumurthy’s interest in temples gradually went beyond just visiting them or reading about them. He would carry his drawing pad along and sketch details of temples.
He still keeps stacks of ink drawings of temple pillars, cornices, steps, ceilings, murals and sculptures. Where time and neglect have blurred the details in the originals, he has tried to fill in those vanished details in his sketches to see what they may have looked like in their glory days. “These are of temples I have stumbled upon in godforsaken places, uncared for and ignored. Some them no longer exist,” he says.
That is why he is particularly grateful he could be a part of the restoration project of the Devasiriya Mandapam of the Tyagaraja Temple at Thiruvarur. The 17th Century ceiling murals, which were in utter disrepair, were restored last year thanks to the intervention of the Prakriti Foundation and noted Indologist Dr. David Shulman, who also wrote The Mucukunda Murals. “I made several trips with Shulman to the temple,” says Gurumurthy. “We had to fight for permission to just see and shoot the pictures. We studied what remained of the murals and pieced together the story painted there. It was about the monkey-faced Chola King Mucukunda and how he brought Lord Tyagaraja from the heavens to Thiruvarur.” Working with Shulman and the brilliant photographer V.K. Rajamani was quite an experience, says Gurumurthy. “But, at the same time, I can’t help thinking about hundreds of other temples such as the one in Thiruvarur that must be disappearing even as we speak.”
Wherever and whenever possible, Gurumurthy lectures on temple art and architecture. He has also spoken in the presence of former President R. Venkatraman. In June this year, he organised a hugely successful seminar in Coimbatore on the Chola temples. He says with quiet pride, “We had the best scholars on the subject talking to us at the seminar, which was free and open to all. We must share information on our rich heritage.” He has also lectured about temples at PSG IM, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bharatiyar University and Avinashilingam Deemed University. He has spoken to students from foreign universities and, through the Rotary Club of Coimbatore, Metropolis, has volunteered to be a guide on temple tours. “You can’t imagine how many people are interested in this subject. Sadly, there is barely any documentation that the common man has easy access to if he wants to know more.”
On his part, Gurumurthy has more than 5,000 slides of temples he has visited. “Digitally converting so many slides is very expensive so I am frantically trying to revisit as many of those temples as possible to re-photograph them digitally.” Indologist, archaeologist and historian Dr. Nagaswamy has used Gurumurthy’s photographs in his books Foundation of Indian Art, Art and Religion of Bhairavas and Masterpieces of Chola Art.
“I wish young people would come forward to preserve our past,” says Gurumurthy. “It would be so wonderful if we taught the history of our land to school students. How nice it would be if students learnt more about their city’s heritage and volunteered to act as tourist guides during the holidays. There is history and heritage everywhere, often in our own backyards. If only we could open our eyes and learn to look after them.”
Gurumurthy’s love for temples extends to organising dance festivals in them. He has been the chairman of the annual Natyanjali Dance Festival at Perur, organised by the Rotary Club of Coimbatore, Metropolis, for almost two decades. Thanks to him, the people of Coimbatore have watched renowned dancers performing in the city. Some of these are Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Sudharani Raghupathy, Alarmel Valli, Chitra Visveswaran, Sonal Mansingh, Malavika Sarukkai and Madhavi Mudgal