Homes and gardens

Blue door to the past

Filmmaker Latha Menon’s restored 135-year-old ancestral home, a five-year project, proves that holding on to the past is worth it

Till recently, one of the calling cards of Valiyasala, a bustling corner of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, was its centuries-old agraharam (traditional row houses of the Brahmin community, now declared a heritage site). But now, if you continue down the road and over a small incline, you will come upon Mundanad house, a 135-year-old property that has been renovated and restored — over a span of five years — to its former glory. And, according to Latha Menon, Chennai-based filmmaker and the woman behind the passion project, it all began with memories.

“It was a very warm, welcoming house. During summer vacations, it became our (17 grandchildren) playground. I still remember running down the stairs, sleeping in the hall and enjoying my grandmother’s cooking,” she tells me over the phone. The 2,200 sq ft property, with Dutch Colonial features, was part of a larger tharavadu (ancestral home) that was torn down to make apartment blocks. Her grandmother, Ammini Amma, however, continued to live in the malika veedu, and when, in 2011, part of the roof caved in, Menon stepped in.

Past perfect

Blue door to the past

What began as a simple attempt to repair soon turned into something more. “I felt if the house was holding on so resolutely, I should help it last another 135 years,” she smiles. Challenges were plenty: the limestone foundation was weak, the mud walls were crumbling, and the woodwork needed restoration. So she called in Chennai-based architecture and design firm, ONEbyN, and a group of carpenters who were “sensitive to old wood” and proficient with traditional techniques.

“When our discussions began with stories about the people who lived there, and not the rooms or updates, I realised I didn’t want to do a contemporary intervention. Instead, I wanted to preserve its spirit and ensure any additions would blend in,” explains Vijay SB, the founder-architect who studied colonial and Travancore architecture to understand the period’s proportions and materials. While a civil contractor got started on reinforcing the foundation and walls with concrete, head carpenter, Jokhu Prasad Sharma, began work on recreating missing railings, strengthening rafters and repairing old teak doors and windows.

Standing tall
  • The restoration work, which came up to almost ₹40 lakh, also included walls with a lime plaster (or egg plaster) finish, a Chettinad technique that gives them a mirror-like sheen. And in her quest for authenticity, Menon worked with Rohith of Classic Lights, which specialises in vintage lighting. “While I purchased some old fixtures from Chor Bazaar, the rest Rohith recreated for me,” she says. And Vijay ensured that the switch boards matched, with old ivory switches nested in wooden boxes.
  • While removing the old plastering, Vijay discoverd a two-inch floral motif that ran below the ceiling, spanning all the rooms. So when they re-plastered the walls, he mades sure he recretaed it, with the help of the students of the College of Fine Arts.

Meanwhile, Menon, who shuttled between Chennai and Valiyasala through the entire project, scoured local antique stores in Kovalam. “The mukhappu (an ornamentation on the roof) had completely deteriorated, so I went looking for one. I also found the blue door of the padippura (entrance to the courtyard) there, which I thought suited the architecture,” she says. But it is other discoveries within the house that she cherishes. “I found a wooden chest full of old black-and-white photographs that dated back to the early 20th century, when my grandfather graduated as a barrister,” she says, adding, “I framed and put them up in the rooms — a slice of history that’s part of the house’s history. Sometimes you have to spend time in such places to rediscover your past.”

Keeping it boutique

Over the years, the team stayed on site, gradually working from within and without. Study rooms were converted into bathrooms, the kitchen got a functional update, and an old bathroom that abutted the building got a few additions. “Besides providing a third bedroom, one of the main reasons we built on that structure was so we could hide a ‘modern’ yellow-and-red building that stuck out like a sore thumb behind it,” Vijay laughs. A little hidden alcove they discovered upstairs also became a convenient water tank.

Blue door to the past

Menon departed from Kerala traditions when it came to the flooring. As her hunt for someone to recreate the old red oxide turned up nought, she looked to Chettinad tiles. “Since I wasn’t planning on putting any paintings on the wall, I brought colour into the floor — with beautiful blue-and-chrome-yellow tiles that go with the ambience.” Calling it a quaint, almost boutique-like house, she has ensured the furnishing complements it. Much of it is from her grandmother’s collection — like an old four-poster bed, a diwan she got re-caned and urulis. But she’s also brought down a few pieces, like a swing, from her personal collection.

“Every time I go there, there is something in the air that cocoons me. My grandmother (who passed away before the renovation was completed) is in every corner,” says Menon, who is currently working on a script for a feature film. Incidentally, one of the first scripts she wrote (almost eight years ago) revolves around a restoration architect! “I would like to make the house into a creative hub for people who appreciates architecture and history. Let’s see how that develops,” she concludes.

Details: mundanadhouse@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 12:45:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/blue-door-to-the-past/article19377902.ece

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