Every time I meet Pradeep Chakravarthy I'm delighted, for in his bubbling over with enthusiasm for the past I see hope for heritage in the State. There are so few young persons interested in the historical that when I meet a young person with the same passion as I have for all that has contributed to our present, a person like 35-year-old Pradeep for instance, it raises my spirits considerably to find that there is are young people who will continue to keep the fires of heritage burning.

It doesn't matter that my interests in the past are different from Pradeep's. He's interested in temples, their architecture, their stories, their sculptures and vahanas, the songs and dance they have generated over the years, and the inscriptions in them — many of them disappearing — that record bits and pieces of royal and social history. All these interests of his are reflected in a book to be released on Thursday (December 16) in Madras, his first major title, Thanjavur: A Cultural History. In it, Pradeep's crisp text is embellished by the photographs of Vikram Sathyanathan.

The book, in effect an introduction to the Big Temple, the history of the kingdoms of Thanjavur, and its arts and crafts, as well as a peep into its future, is an all-purpose one rather than a religion, or temple-oriented publication. But one thing I did miss in it is greater attention to the content of inscriptions in Thanjavur temples, a subject of great interest to Pradeep.

Of special interest to me, however, was his survey of the 19th Century photographers who focused on Tanjore and his brief survey of the treasures of the Sarasvati Mahal Library. The photographers he introduces to readers are Capt. Linnaeus Tripe, Capt. Edmund David Lyon and Samuel Bourne.

Tripe joined the Madras Army in 1839 and when his interest in photography was noticed by his superiors he was appointed Official Photographer of the British Mission to the Court of Ava, Burma. Back in Madras he was made the Photographer of the Government of the Madras Presidency with the mandate to photograph objects in the Presidency that would interest the “Antiquary, Architect, Sculptor, Mythologist and Historian.”

Between and betwixt trips to the mofussil to carry out this assignment, he taught at what is now the College of Arts in Madras. Most of his photographs, before Government felt it had no money for such non-productive activities (now where I have heard that before in more recent times?!) and asked him to call halt to his peregrinations, were of temples, particularly in the Thanjavur-Tiruvaiyaru, Madurai and Pudukottai-Srirangam areas.

The Big Temple was one of the greatest beneficiaries of his photography and that of his assistant, also of the college, C. Iyahswamy. Tripe also took many of his students in the college with him on his photographic safaris and there are, besides his pictures, a few taken by them in the College today. Tripe published eight volumes of his work before he passed away in England in 1902.

The second of the Tanjore photographers, Lyon, came out to India in 1865 after a stint in the Army in South Africa. He established a studio in Ooty, but was taken out of the studio time and again by commissions from the Madras and Bombay Presidencies to do the kind of recording that Tripe had earlier been mandated to do. Till he left India in 1869 to settle in Malta, Lyon did much work in the Tamil Delta and in the Deccan. Unlike Tripe, however, he concentrated on photographing the Tanjore palace and its surroundings.

Sam Bourne, the third of the Tanjore photographers, worked with Charles Sheppard, first in Simla and then in Calcutta. It was on a tour of the South in 1869 that Bourne took his pictures of Tanjore. The best of them are of the town's three main streets. A fourth photographer who deserved attention but is missing in Pradeep's list is C. Nachiappan, once of Kalakshetra and now the Koviloor Swami. His photographs of the Thanjavur frescoes are outstanding work.

The chapter on the holdings of the Sarasvati Mahal Library has a wealth of information and I was particularly happy to discover that they include a large collection of maps in several languages, one of which I would like to see one day. Namely, the one showing troop movements during the French siege of Madras (1758-59). Also intriguing me was mention of another map, one of the subcontinent showing Adam's Bridge prominently as a distinct chain of islands. Pradeep adds, “The Manual of Madras Presidency says that the bridge was in use till 1480.” That's news to me making me ask: When are we due for the next bridge?


Added reptile attractions

A friend from abroad who visited the Chennai Snake Park in Guindy recently was so impressed with it that he insists it is a place everyone should spend some time at.

He was quite taken up with the 23 species of snakes (including sea snakes), seven of crocodiles, four of turtle and five of lizards (to laymen like him and me, the Bengal monitor and the Water monitor count as lizards), he saw there, but apart from his enthusiasm for those displays he brought me up-to-date on two added attractions that I knew nothing about. One is an Interpretation Centre and the other is a museum, yet another of Madras's little known ones.

The Interpretation Centre was set up about a year ago at a cost of Rs. 4 million and has a striking display in English and Tamil on snakes in static and electronically-aided moving modes. An auditorium attached to the Centre offers space and equipment for lectures to groups and classes for children, including a touch-screen kiosk with facilities to project from the kiosk to the wall-mounted screen.

When the museum was set up I am not sure, but it could have been some time ago and I just missed it during visits I made many years ago. Now, I hear, all the exhibits in it have been re-labelled by S.R. Ganesh of the Trust and clearly identified are 67 snakes, 32 lizards, four tortoise species, eight frog species and a worm-like amphibian.

Most of this collection comprises captive animals that, after their natural death, were preserved and presented to the museum; others were found during field trips by those connected with the Park Trust.

Together, the three separate viewing sections of the Chennai Snake Park offer as much fare for the enthusiast as for the curious. And for good measure, the Park has a library too to help them gain further insights.


When the postman knocked…

* Drawing attention to a December anniversary, K.R.A. Narasiah, tells me that most people, even seafarers and those connected with ports, have forgotten Sir P.S. Sivaswami Aiyar's contribution to marine training in India. On January 12, 1922, he moved a resolution in the reformed Indian Legislative Council to set up a committee to examine the possibilities of establishing an Indian Merchant Marine. He wanted a nautical college to be established where Indian deck and engineer officers would be trained and then apprenticed on Government-supported ships. When no progress was made for years on his suggestion, he moved another resolution on the subject on March 19, 1926, urging the establishment of training facilities for marine officers in Bombay. The consequence of his urgings was the commissioning of the Training Ship Dufferin in December 1927. From the Dufferin alumni have come twelve Admirals who've served the Indian Navy, two Chiefs of Naval Staff, and two nautical advisors to the Government of India. The first Captain of the Dufferin was Capt. Digby Beste. Certainly a December anniversary to celebrate by all mariners.

* Prof. K. Krishnamurthy tells me that another battlefield associated with Lt.Gen. Eyre Coote (Miscellany, November 22) is two miles west of Porto Novo. It was in June 1781 that Coote defeated Hyder Ali here at the Battle of Porto Novo (Parangipettai), but he failed to dislodge the Mysore ruler from the Carnatic. The victory, Prof. Krishnamurthy tells me, was commemorated with a memorial plaque “near the flag-mast close to the Centre of Advanced Study in Marine Biology of Annamalai University” and wonders whether it is still there. If it is, I wonder whether anyone is maintaining this heritage artefact.


The new botanical gardensDecember 5, 2010