While awareness of interior design and art has grown in Tiruchi, more could be done to preserve our heritage buildings, feels artist and photographer S. Anand Karthick

Artworks of all shapes and sizes crowd around this little shop-cum-gallery tucked away in Thillai Nagar’s 7th Cross Street. In the midst of the organised chaos sits S. Anand Karthick, proprietor, artist and photographer.

His establishment, Cosmic’s Art Gallery and Crafts has been in business for the past 40 years, showcasing the sights and sounds of Tiruchi on canvas and in photographs and of late, supplying customised souvenirs and mementos.

“My father, a retired air-force officer, used to be a good photographer, and had found a way to make his hobby into a business with this store,” says Karthick. “I used to come here after school to help out in the evenings, and now my daughter is the one who is carrying forward my interest in art.”

An eye for design

Up until recently, he says, few Tiruchi residents were interested in decorating their homes with customised artwork. “Now as younger executives earn more, they want to have a well-appointed home, and displaying an exclusive painting is one of the best ways to do it,” says Karthick. Paintings start at Rs. 1000 at Cosmic’s, going up to the tens of thousands depending on the size, while prints are cheaper, with a starting price of Rs. 100.

While the art scene has gained some prestige over the years in Tiruchi, the temptation to touch up paintings and photographs with editing software has grown stronger, says Karthick. “There is a set of artists that likes to paint on printed photographs and call it art, but I call that cheating,” he says.

“Before we started this art gallery section six years ago, ours was just a general store offering framing, reprints and original art on a small scale. Today we employ a staff of eight, and two Kumbakonam-based artists for Tanjore-style paintings,” says Karthick, who is himself an expert in pencil drawing and photography.

His Tiruchi customers prefer landscapes over other themes, he says, while foreigners usually ask for art related to historical sites and old streetscapes.

“I am trying to bring archaeological information in the form of paintings,” says Karthick. “It’s important for future generations to know what our heritage consists of. I organise informal art lessons for students and retirees, focused on archaeological sites. We need to have a guidebook on the heritage buildings of our country so that the information can be of practical use to students,” he adds.

Preserving heritage

Karthick’s own favourite Tiruchi landmark is the Our Lady of Lourdes cathedral, which he has photographed almost every year. He is in the process of photographically documenting the temples and monuments of Narthanmalai, Srirangam and part of Gangaikondacholapuram. What have his travels taught him?

“That the architecture of our heritage buildings cannot be compared to the modern structures, nor can they be replicated satisfactorily today,” he says. “Buildings that have lasted centuries were built using very basic technology but with such exact measurements that you could hang a thread straight down from top to bottom. It’s hard to find symmetry in our modern buildings despite the vast amount of technology we have at our disposal.”

He wishes that we’d show some respect for the country’s heritage sites. “During my travels, I’ve seen many of our own people who make a mess at ancient monuments, scratching their names on the stone walls or drinking and throwing garbage there. If we had a fraction of the fascination that foreigners have for our country, we would take better care of our environment,” he feels.

Importance of labour

Harnessing traditional arts for a livelihood is not easy, says Karthick. “There used to be at least 150 families engaged in wood carving staying in Perambalur and Arumbavur once. Now barely five families are left in the field,” he says. “The reason is economic: most of the younger generation of wood carvers has gone into computer engineering, where you can earn Rs. 15,000 monthly as compared to Rs.2000 earned by the wood carvers.”

An uneven use of the available manpower is also the reason why things are so much cheaper in China, says Karthick. “A simple pen stand that we make for Rs. 100 here costs just Rs. 70 in China. Why? Because they know what is hard work in China. Government support is important but our workers have become numbed with handouts. If labourers were paid for their work, wouldn’t they understand the value of labour better?”