Deborah Thiagarajan speaks to Kausalya Santhanam on making India home, founding DakshinaChitra and her efforts to preserve our rich heritage

The 12-year-old loved to sew. She would visit the wholesale market in Philadelphia and scout around for her favourite textiles. Madras checks, to be precise! The young American was also sure that one day she would marry “someone, somewhere in the world.” “It was never ‘somewhere in the U.S.',” laughs Deborah Thiagarajan.

Later, the young woman who went to study at the University of Pittsburgh met Indian student Raj Thiagarajan doing his Ph.D. They married and Deborah landed in Madras in 1970. “I immediately keyed in to life in this city.” The proximity of Kalakshetra as well as neighbours and friends helped introduce her to the culture and the arts. “Having lived for so many years here, I have begun to believe in karma or destiny,” adds Deborah, now a graceful grandmother. What else but destiny could have brought her so far away and made her set up a centre to showcase South Indian traditions — architecture, culture, crafts and folk performing arts?

Centre for arts

DakshinaChitra defines Deborah. A living museum that has become a dream destination for tourists from the country and abroad. The centre set in ten acres on the way to the ancient port city of Mammallapuram reflects a gracious lifestyle where even the simplest homes were enriched by a sense of aesthetics, and where wealth did not mean ostentatious display. But a way of life that is gently fading like the amber shades of a beautiful sunset, with traditional houses speedily coming down, and the rapidly disintegrating connect between rural and urban life.

Well-known architects, craft lovers and friends responded spontaneously with their support in the setting up of DakshinaChitra which opened in 1996. It was the main project of the Madras Craft Foundation set up by Deborah in 1984. “Last year we had 1,34,000 visitors ; the first year it was 6,000.” She gives her slow, soft smile. “I fell in love with India the moment I arrived.” It was a love that India, South India, returned lavishly. Being the daughter-in-law of a well known industrial family smoothened the path. “And my husband was with me all the way. Raj, (who passed away in 2007), had business acumen allied to a rare artistic temperament.”

Working for the Tamil Nadu Government's noon meal programme in the rural areas made her aware of the wealth of craft traditions that needed support. “I feel sorry for anyone who has not spent two to three years in the Indian villages,” says Deborah. “There is a humanism, a warmth and hospitality despite the poverty, which you can't get anywhere else.”

Heritage conservation

It took eight years for it to be recognised that DakshinaChitra is not for the elite and that it was set up for people to understand the value of their own culture and heritage. Only when heritage conservation becomes a people's movement, Deborah feels, will there be results. The scenario is changing but then (sadly) “most people change when they have lost something”. Which explains why there is so much more enthusiasm about museums now, says this former convenor, and founder of Tamil Nadu chapter of INTACH. The Ministry of Culture has sanctioned 20 new museums as of April this year. But museums, she agrees, have a rocky journey in India. “That is because they are considered a colonial legacy. The idea works more in the West because here is a divide between what you are and how you live. Here there is very little disjunction as yet.” Deborah is one of a few in the country today with such a strong experience and background in Museology.

DakshinaChitra exudes constant energy — craft fairs, education courses, seminars, performing art events. Fresh Government grants are being used to build infrastructural facilities. The young need to be exposed to the past. Life has changed so much. Deborah realised how much when her six-year-old grandson came to a live international theatre performance recently and asked, “Grandma, are all these real people or is this virtual reality?” She chuckles. “There is so much more to accomplish,” she says. “I've made 20 trips to get a house each from North Karnataka and Andhra. I have only the weaver's house in Telangana and the Muslim house from Chikmagalur, Karnataka, refuses to get built…”she frets. “But till now we have 17 heritage houses — of a cross-section of people. ‘You've democratised art', someone said. It is the best compliment we have got,” she smiles.

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