In the skilful hands of Vankeepuram Sundararajan, household trash is ingeniously recycled.
Old materials such as plastic mugs, buckets, stainless steel plates, pipes, tubes, pet bottles and all such household trash are either sold away or thrown into the bin. But when I visited musician Subashini Parthasarathy for a clarification on padams, I found similar refuse, including an old tambura stand, all neatly stacked in a large carton to be couriered to her father who lives in Kanchipuram.
I could not resist asking her whether waste materials fetch more in Kanchipuram. “You visit my father in Kanchipuram to find out what he does with these. His house abuts the Sri Varadarja Perumal Temple on West Mada Street,” she said, smiling.
Her father, Vankeepuram Sundararajan, has already ordered Kanchipuram idli from the temple, in anticipation of my visit. On my arrival, he insists we go to the temple first and observe everything at the Perumal and Thayar sannidhi. Words fail to describe the beauty of the presiding deity, Sri Varadaraja Perumal and his consort Sri Perundevi Thayar.
Back at his house, we are welcomed by a huge Hamsa Vahanam (swan) with the utsava moorthy bedecked with jewellery, a large umbrella similar to the annual Tirupathi Kodai meant for the Brahmotsavam and two life- sized archakas standing near them. Sundararajan explains, “ What you see is a replica of the original vahanam at the temple and I have made it from discarded materials.
“I have used bottle caps for the eyes, an elliptical fruit basket for the face and earthen lamps for the ears. The body has been created with bamboo sticks and wires. The golden paper and artificial jewellery are the only items I have bought. Old twill cloth in camel skin colour make up the bare-chested archakas. The utsavar Devaraja Perumal comprises an inverted stainless steel tumbler for the face, a small plastic bucket for the body and card board shock absorbers.” Sundararajan has made replicas of almost all the divine mounts.
On the landing of the stairs that lead to the first floor are housed the models of moolavigrahams of Perumal and Thayar. Now one can understand the context of visiting the temple first. The minute details with which he has replicated the idols are astonishing. Sundararajan describes how he made them. “Life-size photos of the deities were my reference points. Waste paper basket for Perumal’s crown , copper vessel (vattu) for the face and an old dhobi basket for the torso have all been seamlessly joined.
“Black carry bags give an authentic black stone look. Bottle caps for eyes and old stainless steel plates for the shankhu (conch) and chakram (weapon) that are in the left and right hands of Perumal. Beeswax and m-seal are the predominant ingredients.” The striking resemblance with the original bowls me over.
Sundararajan graduated from the Kakinada Engineering college and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He did his Masters at Penn State University in the U.S. After that he worked in several corporate houses before settling down in Kanchipuram after retirement.
Mother, his muse
What was his source of inspiration? “As a college student, I watched my mother, Padma Varadachari, making dolls using cotton and old clothes. Her miniature creations made from discarded chalk pieces are a marvel. Months before the annual Navarathri, her lay out for a thematic kolu would be ready. Thereafter, she would focus on making the dolls. One of the themes was incidents from the Bhagavatham. My maternal uncle created personalities such as Mahatma and Buddha with plaster of paris and without any mould, all this kindled the urge in me”.
In the ante room, all his mother’s creations are neatly arranged forming a kolu. His wife, Dr. Nirmala Sundararajan (musician and musicologist), chips in, “This is a permanent kolu .”
She describes how her mother-in-law created birds and crocodiles from shells of cardomom and badam respectively”. All these are on display. The Krishna theme is bewitching. The patience and perseverance of his mother are evident in each of the several hundred, handcrafted and realistic dolls. The 81-year-old man turns 18, when he retraces the story of their creation.
The temple car of Devaraja Swamy is yet another assemblage of waste materials. Plastic basins of diminishing sizes for the roof and the base, give it the shape of an upright hexagon with wheels made from caps of Horlicks bottles. Nails, removed from an old pair of cricket boots, to harness the wheels add to the authenticity. The highlight is the five consorts, housed in a glass shelf. Caught in a mood of contemplation, they seem as though they are waiting to dance together.
Sundararajan does not forget to mention his ‘Man Friday,’ Sudharshanam alias Bobjee, who has been helping him all through.
“Foreigners visiting the temple, park their cars near our house and I invite them in to get a feel of what is inside the temple, for they are not permitted beyond the dwajastambam. Excited, they spread the word around. And now I show these through Skype to their friends and my relatives too”.
It is pure joy to see an artist put his heart into his creations, and it is with a feeling of serene happiness that I leave his house for the journey back to Chennai.