Chat Kalaivani Chengappa, convenor of INTACH Coimbatore, worries about vanishing customs and traditions of our society. It is just not the brick and mortar monuments, but also the intangible heritage that we should be safeguarding, she tells Pankaja Srinivasan
I t is Pongal, and Kalaivani Chengappa is going to Puravipalayam, her ancestral home. She describes the scene there. "There will be a thatched shed under which we will make pongal in a paanai. There will be a theppa kulam (a pond) with flowers floating in it." A feast awaits her, pithukku paruppu and kollu kolambu, to be eaten along with the plain pongal. And, of course, shakkara pongal with bananas and dripping ghee. There will be karumbu, kolam, music and the kummi dance. There will be drums (thapattai palagaI) around a bonfire.
Kalaivani loves the rituals that make these occasions so joyous. But she has been worrying about how long it will be before they disappear. "We were gathering around women for the Kummi for Pongal and we realized there were hardly any who remembered the steps," she says.
Kalaivani is hoping that before it is all lost, she can document the rituals and traditions of the region. "They are our heritage too," she says. "Lullabies, wedding songs, mourning songs. They will soon be lost to us."
But not if she and her colleagues at INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) can help it, says Kalaivani. She is convener of INTACH, Coimbatore Chapter, and has been a member for more than 25 years. Along with the traditions she holds so dear, she has watched the greenery disappear, the garbage increase, and willful disregard for the environment. But she has also had the satisfaction of doing something for her city.
"The Pupul Jayakar Award, instituted by INTACH, was my baby," she says. "It is awarded to the best kept public gardens and traffic islands by private bodies and by the corporation or government agencies. It also honours the gardeners who have worked in them." Kalaivani loves plants and runs a nursery too. The garden at the Police Commissioner's Office was her labour of love.
Personally too, she has had many ah ha moments thanks to INTACH. One of the best surprises came when they were looking out for a premise for a museum. "The curator and registrar of records of the State Archaeological Museum, Mr. Pookondran, casually asked me if I knew anything about my own family history. I didn't, of course. He then showed me documents that trace my ancestry back to Kannappa Nayanar! There is mention of it in the Kalahasti Temple and even at Perur."
Then, there was family history played out right here in the Central Jail. Kalaivani's forefather, Kumara Gopana Mandradi (Mandradiar), was captured by Tippu Sultan. He later sided with Tippu to fight the British, but they were defeated and he was imprisoned at the Central Jail. One day, he watched from his cell as some Englishmen struggled to train a horse. He offered to do it for them in exchange for freedom. He tamed the horse and in return, not only was he freed, he was made zamindar of 21 parganas. This remained with the family till the privy purse was abolished." Kalaivani modestly adds, "While it is wonderful to learn of one's lineage, I always remember a quote that says, ‘Do not be proud of your ancestors, let your ancestors be proud of you.'"
Students for history
She can't keep the pride out of her voice as she shares news of her success in involving school children in INTACH activities. In a competition organised by INTACH and Fox History and Entertainment Channel, called My City My History, five Coimbatore schools have been selected: National Model Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Stanes Higher Secondary School, CMS Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Sri Gopal Naidu Higher Secondary School and Lawrence School. "INTACH asked the students from classes six to nine to submit a historical story about their city, supported with either drawings or photographs. There were 6,000 entries. Five schools from each region were selected, and the Coimbatore Regional Chapter has been selected from Tamil Nadu for 2010." A Coimbatore student, Divya from GKD Matriculation School, painted the Perur Temple in an All India painting competition on historic cities, and won the first prize from 1,500 entries.
In planning her school activities, Kalaivani firmly believes that one field trip is worth many hours of sitting over text books. "Children must know about where they come from. We took school children to a potters' village. There was a time when there were potters in every village, now just a handful of families make pots. These are traditional crafts. One ought to document them for posterity. The children are our future and they must learn about their heritage and take it forward."
She is buzzing with ideas, and once she gets back after Pongal, Kalaivani has a ceremony to organize at a historical monument in Coimbatore. It is to felicitate students who have helped her INTACH dreams take shape.
Photos: (Cover & Centrespread)