Stones that speak

After 32 years in IIT, Delhi, what inspired Professor S. Swaminathan to write about Mahabalipuram? Gowri Ramnarayan meets the engineer-turned-author

September 22, 2010 04:47 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 06:56 am IST

A MARVEL OF MAHABALIPURAM: Shiva instructing his disciple Tandu who gave the name Tandava to the art.

A MARVEL OF MAHABALIPURAM: Shiva instructing his disciple Tandu who gave the name Tandava to the art.

How did a mechanical engineer turn into an expert in ancient monuments? How did Professor S. Swaminathan, after 32 years at IIT, Delhi produce a coffee table book on “Mahabalipuram: Unfinished Poetry in Stone” with photographs by Ashok Krishnaswamy?

A casual trip to Ajanta in 1963 triggered a life-changing experience. Swaminathan realised that he had no background on the breathtaking wonders of the 29 caves. “Our monuments have become picnic spots. We have no understanding of heritage.” His anguish took positive shape when he devised a course in art and technology. “IIT is an export zone. The student's mind is in the U.S., he knows Cincinnati, not Tiruchirapalli. But a 5,000-year-old heritage cannot be trivial! Where is identity without culture?”

Five years of research on Ajanta resulted in a book with exhaustive details about every cave and fresco — location, layout, stylistic phases, politics, patronage, theme, composition, technique, pigment — even details about portrayal of women and methods of rendering limbs.

He has documented Ajanta in sleeve notes that “you can enjoy sitting in the drawing room,” he laughs, admitting that “you” is really himself. Pulling out more unpublished sleeve notes and “books” he adds, “Until age 70 my name was printed only on the IIT prospectus. Now I find it on the cover of Mahabalipuram.” It was preceded by an elaborate source book and months of photography. “We're planning a cheaper edition; the people I write for can't buy a book for Rs. 2,500.”

He continues reflectively, “I'm a loner, like doing things for myself. Nothing commercial. Whatever I find is on the public domain, on my website. Many download stuff when they travel to Ajanta or Nalanda or Sittannavasal”. The engineer in Swaminathan gravitates to the material and craft methods of the past. He probes into the growth and direction of thought in the community that shapes its art forms. “We look at the wrong end of the telescope. What we see in heritage sites is not art, but the outcome of extended meditation.”

Studying a bewildering range of subjects from Tamil prosody to cartoons and Gandhian philosophy, Swaminathan is fascinated by Brahmi, the mother of all Indian and most south Asian scripts, and Grantha, developed by the Pallavas to write Sanskrit.

“I dream,” said the retired professor when a man he met by chance asked, “What do you do?” He was probably thinking about cultural centre Sudarshanam, launched in hometown Pudukkottai. But the questioner, industrialist GRK Reddy, persisted in knowing more and Swaminathan found himself supported by Marg Swarnabhoomi to publish Mahabalipuram. “I've been given an office too, to work on any project I like.” A crucial interest is starting heritage clubs with location specific cultural study in village/district schools.

The Taj Mahal is everywhere. What do we know of the greater marvels of Mahabalipuram?” asks Professor Swaminathan. “Every one of its motifs is singular, unique, no repetition. A lion with a Mahishasuramardhini carved on its stomach! Every ratham (chariot) is fashioned differently. The Arjuna Penance is the pinnacle of sculptural vision. Spare ornamentation and subtle details achieve superb classicism. Can you find a more accomplished emperor, Mahendra Pallava?” he wonders. His “Mahendra trail” of the visionary king titled Vichitrachitta, has become well-known. He has conducted courses in the old port for tourist guides, as also residence seminars involving eight hours spent daily in front of bas relief, monolith and cave. “Nowhere else do we find all three in one spot.”

Swaminathan does not see himself as a scholar, but a rasika who wants to introduce what he enjoys to others. “I'm no author jumping from book to book. But I do want to write on the Kailasanatha temple, Kanchi.” No, he has not set specific goals for himself. “My greatest joy is that I have sensitised many students to the value of our heritage. Many write and say I have transformed their way of thinking. What more can I want?”

The Book:

Mahabalipuram: Unfinished poetry in Stone

Beginning with the first cave temples excavated in south India (Mandagapattu) by Mahendra Pallava (590-630 CE), the book looks at the countless works of art scattered on the Mahabalipuram shore. To the breath stopping parade of cave shrine, bas relief, monolith and even regional flora, quaintness and riddles add spice — an inscription of a Saivite curse on a Vaishnava shrine, the mystery of the tiger cave, speculation on whether Arjuna or Bhagiratha is the central ascetic in the Great Penance…

No jargon in the chatty ‘in' style. The visual close-ups engender empathy and intimacy. What stands out is the writer's and lensman's eagerness to share their passion for the sweep of imagination and craft splendour in these Pallava marvels, as the author traces the legend, composition, and details on the walls. Turning the pages is to watch stone springing to life in this magnificent sculpture garden.

The images of Mahendra Pallava, flanked by his queens, or cleverly representing himself and Lord Siva in the same figure at Lalitankura Pallavagriham (Rockfort, Tiruchi), establish an irresistible human interest in this saga of unnamed sthapatis who left by the rolling waves their exquisite odes to the gods, and to the human spirit.

The Photographer

A visual communications professor who works with some of the highest brands in India and overseas, a trainer in graphic art tools, photography, visual design and animation, Ashok Krishnaswamy was prompted by an associate's query, “What have you done for society?” to document old temples as a quiet personal mission.

As a young man Krishnaswami learnt photography at Mahabalipuram, with a cheap camera and scrounged film rolls. Despite the immense advances since then, the project posed its challenges. The Arjuna Penance bas relief had to be captured in multiple frames. Negotiating the narrow space at the Dharmaraja chariot was quite a task. The huge Govardhan panel in the Krishna mandapam? “I took each portion between the pillars and stitched them together.”

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