Retired IIT Prof. S. Swaminathan on his efforts to save the stunning Sittanavasal cave paintings

Like the frescoes of Ajanta and the cave paintings of Ellora, there are some priceless, stunning works of art going to ruin due to neglect, right here in Tamil Nadu. Chennai-based S. Swaminathan, a retired professor of Mechanical Engineering from IIT Delhi, has been working on raising awareness as well as preserving the monument in Sittanavasal, an important Jain cave complex. So how did an engineer born in Pudukkotai end up working on heritage conservation? “I am interested in our heritage and I am also concerned about its loss due to callousness and vandalism. While teaching at IIT-Delhi, I did substantial documentation of the paintings in the caves of Ajanta and lectured to the public on the importance of these paintings and the need to preserve and popularise the same. Sittannavasal lies in Pudukkottai district and I belong to Pudukkottai. I have been seeing the paintings from the 50s. I am upset about the slow but definite damage to them,” he rues and adds that the current state of these paintings “is pathetic. More than 80 per cent is already gone. There has been no effective action to take care of what is remaining.” Swaminathan attributes this slow decline to insensitivity on the part of authorities as well the ignorance of the public.

He has been seeking the support of various sections of people to raise awareness about this issue. On March 13, in Chennai, INTACH organised a talk in which Swaminathan, who helped set up a centre for arts and culture, called Sudharsanam in Pudukkottai, presented a proposal for preserving the site. His ideas for the space include the setting up of a full-scale replica of the cave temple with its painting recreated to its original state to offer people an opportunity to appreciate its lost glory. This, he says, will also help preserve the monument, particularly the paintings, from further damage by keeping the original cave under controlled conditions. Swaminathan also proposes the building of thematic pavilions around the re-created cave temple in a bid to highlight the features of Indian heritage for which the Sittannavasal monuments are famous.

Apart from the Sittanavasal site preservation, Swaminathan has worked on a host of other socially responsible projects. He was the national coordinator for watershed development and Integrated Rural Technology Centre, Palakkad, Kerala. He even taught a course titled Art and Technology at IIT-Delhi. “Realising that Indian youth have an inadequate understanding of our heritage, and consequently lack a sense of identity, I decided to acquaint the students of IIT-Delhi with various aspects of our culture. Not being an expert in the field, I found, may sometimes be an advantage, as the audience is not put off by jargon, and interacts with the speaker in an uninhibited manner.”

He has spoken about Indian music, Sanskrit, ancient Tamil literature, Tamil prosody, development of scripts, Gandhian philosophy, etc. With Sudharsanam, he hopes to document the heritage of the district and offer an opportunity to youth to appreciate their culture. His major post-retirement activity was documenting the Pallava art at Mamallapuram, and a coffee-table book, sponsored by MARG, Chennai, was the outcome. In addition, he has also been conducting guided tours to this heritage site.