Preeti Zachariah visits the restored Muslim House at DakshinaChitra and learns a little about the history of the community in south India

Globules of pepper clustered together. Fragrant sticks of cinnamon. Marigold yellow turmeric. Tiny, innocuous-looking red chillies that turn your gut to fire. Cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, mace, fennel and saffron. A pungent, heady miasma of colours, textures, tastes and flavours that heralded in a story as piquant as the spices in whose search it began.

The spice trade between India and Arabia which began as far back as the first century BC didn’t just see an exchange of spices but also of customs, of traditions, of a way of life. It was the precursor to the advent of Islam in the country — the traders and sailors began to marry local women and this is the origin of many of the Muslim communities in South India. One such man was K. A. Mohammed, whose ancestors had immigrated to Chikmagalur, centuries ago. And it was his house, built in 1914 in Aldur, Chikmagalur that was restored by the Madras Art Foundation and inaugurated at the DakshinaChitra Museum, Muttukadu. In addition to this, was the launch of an exhibition titled ‘A shared heritage’, which according to MCF president Deborah will showcase, “in a small way the history and contribution of Muslims from South India to the culture of India.”

This eight-roomed Chikmagalur Muslim House, which is a part of MCF’s DakshinaChitra project for presentation and preservation of the diverse cultures, arts, architecture and performing arts of India, is certainly a homage to that culture.

Reconstructed using the salvageable material from the original house, including the timber, stone, laterite and tiles, the home’s elaborate stuccowork, carved wooden banisters, red-tiled floors and corbelled ceilings make it an interesting representation of the Muslim architecture of the Deccan region. Vestiges of the past linger in the living room and study which has been furnished as it might have been during the time of the original owners, while the rest of the rooms are a repository of exhibits that throw more light on the community itself. Silken clothes embroidered with delicate zardozi glisten in the corner of one room, while caps embellished with beads are surmounted on the walls.

Containers inscribed with breathtakingly beautiful bidri work and copper pounded into plates and jugs line the shelves, while panels of elaborate Kalamkari adorn the walls. An ornate hookah peers from a little alcove, while a display of items that were traded — pearls, spices and attar — are displayed on glass shelves.

But it doesn’t just stop with the physical exhibits. As writer Huma Kidwai, who was chief guest at the inauguration said, "A home is far more than a physical house — it is a representation of the beliefs of its residents.” Through a series of audio-visual presentations, an attempt is made to delve into these beliefs. A silent film projects whirling dervishes and throws light on the mystical world of Sufism, while images from Dargahs of South India, a video on the close kinship Muslim and Hindu communities share with each other in many of the villages of Tamil Nadu, maps that trace the ancient spice route and videos tracing the history of Muslim architecture, add another dimension to our perception of the community.

According to U.S. Consul General Jennifer McIntyre, who inaugurated the restored house and funded the exhibition, “South India is truly a varied and fascinating land and I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel widely and see first-hand the tremendous cultural diversity that enriches this region — from language to food, from clothing to political views, from religious practices to traditional celebration, from history to architecture.”

Quoting the late Maya Angelou, she adds, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry and we must understand that all threads of the tapestry are equal in value, no matter their colour; equal in importance no matter their texture.”