Intricately-carved teak pillars of ethereal fineness, latticed metal grills, Ming vases, Delft pottery and painted cherubs unfold on the overhead screen as an audio-visual presentation shines the spotlight on the grand houses that still stand in the barren landscape of Chettinad. For the community that once thrived under the Cholas, it was a homecoming of sorts as they gathered at the Rajendra Hall, ITC Grand Chola, for the launch of a book on their iconic mansions.
The event hosted by the Murugappa Group and the S.A.P. Annamalai Kothai Charitable Trust, saw industrialist A.C. Muthiah release the book, followed by speeches on Chettinad heritage by Muthiah and M.M. Venkatachalam, and the launch of a food festival.
Meenakshi Meyyappan’s Mansions of Chettinad, replete with exquisite photographs by Bharath Ramamrutham, text by George Michell and published by Graf, is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. While it records the houses built by the Nattukottai Chettiars over a span of 150 years in a cluster of villages that offer little by way of natural beauty other than scattered palms and dry weather, the book also documents what remains of the life and times of a community that prospered far from Indian shores but always returned to live in the country they called home.
Primarily traders of salt and pearls at coastal Poompuhar during the Chola era, the community moved inland, living in villages laid out in grids. With the spread of colonialism, and unconfined by geography and taboo, they sailed the seas to become rich money lenders, landowners and traders in the remote outposts of Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Indo-China, Ceylon and Borneo. This was when they built their ostentatious mansions, often identified by a ‘bewildering’ set of initials engraved on the doorways that indicated the paternal lineage of the owner.
With the fall of South-East Asia to the invading Japanese during World War II, the Chettinad expatriate dream was largely extinguished. Burmese nationalism, insurgencies in Malaya, war in Indo-China and socialism in Ceylon further eroded the economic foundations of this affluent community. And the mansions that once stood as proud markers of wealth turned silent sentinels to be discovered only by travellers who had steered off course, or pillaged by antique hunters who descended on them in hordes.
“If we cannot safeguard their survival, we can at least document these homes built in a manner and style seen in no other place in the world,” says Meenakshi, 83, who has spent a lifetime preserving and promoting Chettinad’s ritual, cultural and architectural legacy, especially through The Bangala in Karaikudi, of which she is the host. “So many of these houses have gone to rack and ruin, because they now belong to multiple owners who have moved abroad or live in cities and can longer afford to maintain them. Those who can, visit during temple festivities or occasions such as weddings. But, with poor electricity supply, there are hardly any permanent residents.”
One of India’s leading architectural, landscape and travel photographers, Bharath, whose bespoke publishing company has brought out the book, says, “It took me three years to photograph these mansions. As an architect, I was struck by their eclectic nature, about how time has stood still in these places.” He has literally left his footprints in the dust of these ghost towns — he had to scrub and clean some of the houses before photographing them with his Nikon. “A few were well looked after. All of them follow the architecture of a traditional Tamil house, beginning with the thinnai , going through a naduvaasal and ending with the moonram kattu . Most of them, however, had so many disparate elements, some of them kitschy. Chandeliers from Murano, Venetian mirrors, painted tin ceiling panels from England — it was an unbiased collection from all over that came together so well,” he says.
Bharath, who has published 23 books driven by his own photography and is currently working on Hampi and the houses of Goa, says, “It’s important to propagate good architecture by documenting good architecture of the past,” emphasising the diverse nature of the Al. Ar. Zamindar House, Devakottai, and the striking Art Deco pattern of the S.O.SP. Odayappa House, Paganeri.
The book, which has a foreword by Guy Trebay of The New York Times , also has a French translation running alongside the English text “to cater to museologists worldwide”. The houses are sectioned under various chapters that trace the pattern of their growth and embellishment — from simple architecture with rounded thinnai s to carved masterpieces that were prevalent from 1900-1930. Page after page shows pictures of painted volutes, cascading stucco, Athangudi tiled halls, clerestory windows and weather-worn street-facing statues, including one of Queen Victoria that fronts the arch at K.V.AL.RM.House, Kottaiyur.
The photographs also capture interior narratives in the rooms beyond these fabled exteriors. In the final chapter, you can almost hear the last sigh of some of the houses that are dilapidated and abandoned. It is this that Meenakshi Meyyappan hopes to change with this 300-page tome — draw attention to a way of life that may soon pass into the pages of a history book.
(Mansions of Chettinad is priced at Rs. 4,500. For details, call 044-2493 4543, 2464 2985.)