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A wedge of the past

""Brahma Mandiram"" is the 400-year-old house of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar family that has been converted into a museum. It provides interesting glimpses of a more leisurely way of life and a feel of the undiluted culture of this region, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.

Welcoming the visitor with dignity are models of an Iyer couple.

AFTER REACHING the town of Kanchipuram, the vehicle makes its way to Lingappa Street near the Ekambareswarar temple. You crane your head to see the beautiful pictures of deities painted on the walls of a few buildings before the vehicle stops at a house with the typical thinnai/verandah and wooden pillars at the entrance. This is ""Brahma Mandiram"," the 400-year-old house of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar family that has been converted into a museum — the Shakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Folk Art.

"Folk art is not just Kavadi or Karagam but art that is present in everyday life," says Nanditha Krishna, Director of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation who has set up the museum.

"Every effort was taken to restore the home to its original condition and ensure that all the artefacts in it are authentic not just to Tamil Nadu but to North Arcot district. We wanted people, especially children, to know and experience a way of life that is fast vanishing." The house belongs to the Vijayanagar period.

"My mother Shakunthala Jagannathan who inherited this house from my grandfather C. R. Pattabhiraman was very keen it should be turned into a museum and gave her personal collections to make it possible."

Simple and rather austere in architectural features, the flat roofed house is a wedge of the past nestling in the 21st century present. It provides interesting glimpses of a more leisurely way of life and a feel of the undiluted culture of this region.

The house has been painstakingly renovated to approximate its original state. "The beams which had been coated with bright enamel paint were restored to the original, softer blue, a mix of indigo and varnish. Asian Paints mixed 14 colours before they got the right shade," says Nanditha. The adjoining house built in a similar style was bought up and also restored to its original condition. It now serves as a nursery school and help fund the running of the museum.

The open-throughout-the-week museum receives four or five visitors a day on weekdays and 20 during weekends. The entrance fee is Rs. 10. School children, Indian and foreign tourists visit it. South Indian meals are available when booked in advance for groups as also refreshments.

The thinnai or front verandah at the entrance has been adapted into a simple and appealing crafts shop. Palm-leaf baskets, herbal beauty aids and terracotta items made by self-help groups are available for sale. So are inexpensively priced booklets that tell you the history of this famous city and also provide details about the house and its exhibits.

When you enter the arched doorway, you come into the Kalyana Koodam. This was the main hall of the house which was used by the men to receive visitors and where functions and marriages were celebrated. A life-size model of an Iyer gentleman in dhoti and angavastram, is seated in dignity on the Oonjal (swing) which sways gently from the high rafters.

Beside him, the twin mannequin, his wife, decked in a nine-yard sari welcomes visitors with folded hands. Portraits of four generations of the family adorn the walls. The Deshastha Brahmins from the Narmada valley migrated to Tamil Nadu 600 years ago. In the latter part of the 19th century, the wealthy scion of the landlords of Damal was Conjeevaram Venkatasubba Aiyar whose only daughter Rangammal inherited his assets, including this house as well as another which now functions as the SSKV School. It was from Rangammal, his mother, that C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar inherited a considerable amount of property including "Brahma Mandiram" which later passed on to Shakunthala Jagannathan.

A portion of the wall of the Koodam, when broken down during renovations, revealed traces of beautiful paintings but these could not be restored.

Three fresco panels have now taken their place. Executed by Thirugnanam, a well known artist from Mamallapuram, in pleasing shades of rust, green and blue with aesthetic placement of figures, the panels tell you the history of this ancient town in the most succinct and fascinating fashion.

Nagareshu Kanchi... one of the most famous cities of the country in the past, Kanchi was a vibrant spiritual, cultural and academic centre. The panels trace the story of this city, which owes its name to the Kanchi trees abounding in the area, from 300 B. C. to British times. The city finds mention in ancient Tamil literature. Hieun Tsang visited it and left behind glowing accounts.

In the cupboards of ""Brahma Mandiram"" are displayed a variety of dolls used during the Kolu by the family. Most of them belong to the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Very British in appearance are the images of the gopikas holding their wide skirts. The Narasimha looks very English as also the Parasurama and Vishnu on His serpent bed in the ocean. Many of the dolls represent deities that are uncommon in a Kolu display today.

The Panguni Uttiram, the celebration of the marriage of Siva and Parvati, is a central event in the religious calendar of Kanchi. "This house had a major role to play on the celebrations. This tradition continues and the museum is closed during this period (March-April) as Veda Paryanam is held here for a whole fortnight," says Nanditha.

The Maratha influence is seen in the turbanned musician dolls with their tunics glinting a dull gold. Pondicherry used to make gold painted dolls and models of fruits in the past and quite a few of them can be seen in this collection.

In the adjoining Vadyashala, a number of musical instruments — from the simple ektara to the replica of the ancient yazh — are on view. Images of Ganesha and Hanuman preside over them — Ganesha as he is seen in the temple of Badami bursting into joyous dance while witnessing the thandava of Nataraja and Hanuman, as he is known to be a great lover of music.

Rows of traditional deepams including the Paavai vilakku are arranged in an alcove facing which is the puja room.

The dining room whose walls were once painted with frescoes now has only a single faded Kalasham flanked by elephants.

The Nadumutram or open courtyard is decorated with stone images that date back to the seventh and eighth centuries. The courtyard has a system whereby the rainwater is led by conduits to the well in the garden, a fine example of rainwater harvesting. The Chekku (mill) for extracting oil points to the fact that Kanchi controlled the oil trade in the region for several centuries.

The Ugranam, the storehouse has a vast array of utensils — in brass, copper and iron. The copper utensils to store water had beneficial properties while the taste of sambar and rasam were enhanced when cooked in lead or soapstone vessels, a practice followed in many Tamil homes even today. How any of us are aware that in the 18th century Shahji, the Maratha king of Thanjavur, came up with the sambar by mixing tamarind curry with lentils and named it in honour of his cousin Sambhaji who was visiting him? There are vessels in this room of all shapes and sizes, which served various functions in the past as also utensils used for conducting rituals and poojas. The kitchen set that could be closed and locked when travelling and the Nellu Kutthu to store the grain are interesting features in the Ugranam.

In ``Aindinai" there are descriptions of the five ecological divisions of ancient India. While climbing the stairs to the first floor, one passes the Machu where grains where stored and into which family members would crawl for a cool nap in summer.

Upstairs, the cold languid air of the past makes one shiver. When the Muslims came to Kanchi with the invasion of Malik Kafur, they brought the concept of the Zenana. It was from these spaces that the women of the family watched the happenings in the Koodam. They had all the time in the world as women in this family were barred from the kitchen and only male cooks were engaged. Dressed in their best and only having to take care of the children, they would while away the long hours away playing endless games of Paramapadam and Pallankuzhi. Puppets in indolent poses strikingly bring home the ennui and the changes in the position of women in the last 100 years. In the nearby Vastralayam, family heirlooms are featured — "some of the saris are the oldest in Tamil Nadu."

Saris from Thanjavur and brocades from Benaras showcase the rich textile heritage. And of course the fantastic weaves of this temple town, an ancient centre of silk and cotton weaving.

Also exhibited are copies of traditional jewellery but the display could be improved.

From the room at the top, an image of Goddess Kamakshi looks benignly at the temple town where she is so popular.

Anyone expecting a grand mansion, filled with finery, will have their hopes dashed. This house is elegant and shows the comparatively unostentatious lifestyle practised in North Arcot by even the most wealthy proving yet again that affluence and simplicity are an unlikely but a winning combination in the South.

Houses turned into museums are common in the West. But they are a rare phenomenon in this country and the museum shows how heritage and architecture can be preserved with a little care and a great deal of passion for the past.

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