INTACH Madurai Convener Arvind Kumar Sankar tells Soma Basu how he wants to strike at peoples’ insensitivity to heritage

His friends and acquaintances described him as “loquacious” and an “efficient manager” from whom stress shies away. Armed with this input, I called on the convener of INTACH, Madurai Chapter, Arvind Kumar Sankar, for the Weekend chat.

His broad welcome smile even though he was in the middle of organizing a week-long music festival, showed it. “I am the talker in the family who gives ear-pains to all,” he joked and confirmed the rest.

Numerous phone calls either carrying complaints or demanding attention can drive one crazy. Following up renowned artists, coordinating with other members, fixing up venues and programme schedule, tying up multiple loose ends – anybody organizing a cultural festival is laden with anxiety battling the odds. But trust Arvind to keep tension at bay.

How? I ask as a run-up question. “I have tremendous inner peace of mind. I do what I love to do and enjoy what I do,” he supplies a simple answer.

If you expect this grand nephew of P.T.Rajan and the son of a wealthy industrialist (his father, S.B.Sankar, is the founder and CMD of Trichy Steel Rolling Mills) born with a silver spoon in his mouth, to be one of those typical new generation’s flashy youths, he stuns you with didactical oppositeness.

“We come from a culture where we say “paadam sparsha kshama karo”(oh mother, forgive me for keeping my feet on you) when we get out of the bed each morning because we have been taught that every object has a consciousness which must be respected. The more we respect our outside world the more we respect our inner self.”

I stare at him in disbelief but he continues in the same vein: “Unlike today’s children with short crisp names, I have deliberately named both my sons after my father, his brother and cousins, my grandfather and great grandfather, so that Krishna Rajan Sankara Subramanian and Shreeraam Shriram Sankara Subramanian are motivated to live up to their names.”

For this Madurai boy who grew up in a posh bungalow in Chokkikulam and had a smooth sail from Vikaasa School to American College and Thiagarajar School of Management, to become a “spoilt pampered brat” was easy.

“My mother, Lalitha Sankar, pulled in the reins. Extremely conservative, she continuously protected me from the big, bad outside world. I was extremely fortunate in always having her by my side. She introduced me to music, religion, prayers, rituals, art and crafts,” he acknowledges, underlining that if moral values and beliefs are instilled at an young age, even those hailing from socially dysfunctional and financially adverse families grow into fine positive individuals.

As an example, he offers that from the age of nine, he started learning Sanskrit shlokas and bhajans with a group of under-privileged friends at the dilapidated cowshed of his ancestoral Paalayam Mudaliyar house.

“We named our Mandali “Ujjwaala” and used to give small performances. Today, 28 years later, I find them all well settled and successful. This is the power of our ancient culture.”

Young Arvind, however, aspired to be an architect, enamored that he was by two professionals – Peterson from Australia, Jeffrey Bawa, who built the Madura Club. The closest he got was becoming a builder and a promoter.

But two years ago, he got up-close to his dreams when he launched the Madurai chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, taking upon the moral and social responsibility of reviving Madurai’s heritage with like-minded and hand-picked individuals.

“As a child I always used to think in terms of building blocks. My father, who otherwise seemed to live in his own world, constantly surrounded by his business associates, advisors and books, introduced me to Sanskrit and spirituality. I started learning the veena early under guru Shri Sankara Siva Bhoopathy. When I turned 12, Vidushi Meenakshi Ramasubramanian taught me for another decade. My mother too was a veena player and my grand aunt learnt it from M.S’s mother Shanmuka Vadivu. My aunt Chavalier Alarmel Valli and cousin Padmashri Meenakshi Chitharanjan taught me the language of abinaya and hasthalakshana and exposed me to various schools and styles in classical bharatanatyam. I learnt vocal under Mrs Seshagopalan and Neyveli Santhana Gopalan and violin and flute from Lakshminarasimhan. At the age of 10, I was intiated into the world of Tanjore, oil and fabric paintings, techniques of kollam, fabric paintings.”

With such a culturally rich background and getting the best of all of the worlds, it is perhaps natural for Arvind to take to art, culture and heritage with flair and ease. His spontaneity in pushing a movement that restores art and culture is not surprising then.

Most humbly he gives credit to his illustrious family members for instilling basic values in him and making him aware of his responsibility to society.

“We should bring back the culture of live and let live instead of eat and be eaten. Religion and culture needs to be reinstalled and sustained for overall growth and development. I believe that any movement that helps in nurturing our culture and heritage is actually a form of penance and prayer that takes us closer to God within us. We become more sensitive and responsive human beings and help in making a better world,” he says.

As a teenager, Arvind was asked to start the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra in Madurai by none other than Swami Chinmayananda. Ever since, he is known for raising institutions from the scratch -- INTACH, Madurai, being one such achievement at a time when the city really needed it desperately.

“Today’s metro-centric lives are self-centered and material-oriented. It is important to show people their roots. Our local history reveals its past glory and indirectly helps to sow the seeds of aspiration in us.

We feel today’s youngsters are not interested in our heritage, culture and traditions. But actually, adults are uninterested and unaware of their responsibilities. We should constantly innovate and have the zeal to relate to the younger generation because small results make a huge difference,” he essays.

It is this drive that has also led Arvind to start the Kalachar Foundation to introduce classical art forms to under-privileged children. He now plans to start the Chitra Kala Parishad – Tamilnadu , a conservation laboratory that will train local artists in restoring wall murals, paintings and bronzes.

“My vision is to build a complete environment, tradition and heritage-friendly township in Madurai. I also desire to go to Rome to learn about restoration. I dream of building a high-tech, cost-effective retirement home with art, craft and culture related activities that will help in keeping senior citizens mentally fit, alert and happy,” he underlines.

Each project that Arvind picks up has a stamp of his ardent enthusiasm and interest. And his keywords are “innovation, aspiration, evolution”.

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Hailing from the renowned Thiagaraj Mudaliyar family – his great grand fathers were king makers and instrumental in drafting the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, appointing the first trustee in Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam. His grand uncle conducted the first Kumbabishekam of the Meenakshi temple and also restored the Sabarimala temple by installing a new swarna Ayyappan statue there.

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With Arvind at the helm of INTACH Madurai, some initiatives successfully undertaken include revival of the city’s textile tradition and introducing more and innovative tie-and-dye products; Workshops, guest lectures and training programmes on ancient culture; Heritage walks and history courses; Madura geetham festival; Project “Kadamba”; And his pet Madurai malli project. He says despite 15,000 kilograms of jasmine flower being exported daily from the city, the industry faces a threat owing to escalating cost of land that forces farmers to quit jasmine cultivation. Vendors are unable to demand a higher price as they have to sell the perishable commodity in the absence of proper storage facilities. Status of 25,000 people involved in the city’s flower industry can be improved if they come under one roof.