Discovering the history of South India through its objects

At a recent talk at The Bangalore Room in Indiranagar, Chennai-based historian Dr. Pradeep Chakravarthy delved into the stories between various historical objects

Updated - July 12, 2024 05:25 am IST

Published - July 11, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

One of the relics discussed during the talk.

One of the relics discussed during the talk. | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

It is a large house with cream walls and lilac windows situated along a narrow road in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, solid-looking but not particularly distinctive. “It is very boring on the outside,” agrees Chennai-based historian Dr. Pradeep Chakravarthy, nodding towards the photograph of this old house that he has shared with the audience of The Bangalore Room in Indiranagar, who are here to attend his talk titled A History of South India through Selected Antiques.

“Whether it was the Mughal kings we know so much about or the South Indian kings we know nothing about…their lives were very similar to us in terms of feelings and emotions.”

“Whether it was the Mughal kings we know so much about or the South Indian kings we know nothing about…their lives were very similar to us in terms of feelings and emotions.” | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

And yet, it is this house, one that six generations of his family have lived in, that triggered his lifelong passion for history, says Pradeep, recalling lazy summer afternoons spent in that house as a boy, rummaging through the many discarded objects that littered the upstairs floor of this house. “One rule of our family was that when something was broken, we threw it upstairs,” he says wryly.

 Dr. Pradeep Chakravarthy from the talk.

 Dr. Pradeep Chakravarthy from the talk. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On one such excavation, he found an object that triggered his lifelong fascination for history: a child’s notebook, so old that the brown paper covering it flaked off when he touched it. He remembers flipping open the book, clearly one dedicated to maths, and finding a rather relatable epithet written neatly in it.  It said, “I hate maths”, with flowers drawn around the words.  “Here was somebody who I didn’t know…everything in his life was so different…but I could connect with that emotion,” says Pradeep, with a laugh. “That was an important moment for me because I realised that, fundamentally, human nature doesn’t change.”

This one image, he says, taught him to see history very differently — not as a long string of dates and battles, but as stories of people whose lives were not very different from those of our own. “Whether it was the Mughal kings we know so much about or the South Indian kings we know nothing about…their lives were very similar to us in terms of feelings and emotions.” The other thing he learnt from this home, growing up surrounded by old objects, was having a visual image of history. Pointing to a range of antiques arranged behind him at the talk, loaned for the occasion by Bengaluru’s Natesan’s Antiqarts, he says, “My hope is that through these objects, not only will you see them and admire them for their art, but also see the stories and some of the meanings behind it,” says Pradeep.

A lamp from the talk

A lamp from the talk | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

A tradition of light

The first object that Pradeep selects from the collection on display is a beautiful bronze lamp. “Lamps started off with a very practical point of view—giving light,” he says. He then goes on to decode the various elements of the lamp, starting from the very top. “The minute you see this shape, with four wick holders, you know it is from Tirunelveli in the southern part of Tamil Nadu.”

According to him, the tradition of worshipping gods we are familiar with came fairly recently, only about 2000-odd years ago. “In the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu texts, the two main gods it concerned itself with was Agni, which was for fire, and Indra, which was for water,” he says. The oldest tradition, he adds, was simply to worship just the lamp. “That is true enlightenment. When you can focus your eyes on the lamp…on a steady flame…it calms and focuses the mind,” he says before expanding on some of the finer details of this object.

A pithari or oil jar

A pithari or oil jar | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

For instance, he points out this lamp was created using the lost wax process, an ancient metal casting tradition dating back to at least 4000 BCE, where a mould made with wax is used to cast metal. Also, the upper part of the lamp, narrow at the top and enlarged at its waist, appears to represent a Mother Goddess, a symbol of fertility found in prehistoric excavation sites, “something we must have worshipped around 10,000 years ago,” he says. Even though we have forgotten this tradition of worshipping this Mother Goddess figure, “the motif has continued,” he says. Additionally, in the region of the Thamirabarani river, where this lamp is probably from, pottery shards with images of a female figure like this, carrying two sheaves of rice with a river with fish and crocodiles in the background, have been discovered. “All of these are fertility symbols,” he explains.

Pradeep then goes on to focus on another lamp, this one with a hamsa effigy on it. According to him, this mythical bird is a common motif found not just on lamps but also sculpted into the public audience halls of palaces of the past. “The reason we like the hamsa is that it was a mythical bird considered so pure at heart that if you gave it a mixture of water and milk, she would drink the milk and leave the water behind,” he says. He decodes the metaphor of this symbol, saying that it is for us to remember that while there is good and bad in everything, we need to take the good and leave the bad. Pradeep also brings in the concept of ramya, or inner delight. “Every motif that is on a work of art or object has an inner meaning,” he says. “You need to keep looking at it and ask yourself why the artist put it here.”

Object displayed at the talk

Object displayed at the talk | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

Karnataka connection

Pradeep spoke about all the other objects on display, tracing the techniques, history, mythology, and philosophy that have shaped them: a pithari or oil jar, Tanjore paintings, mixed metal receptacles, a silver-inlaid hookah base, and a colourful metal leaf tray from Kerala. 

Among the more fascinating stories Pradeep narrated was the connection between Tanjore paintings and what is today Karnataka. In 1565, the Vijayanagara Empire fell after the Battle of Talikota and was taken over by the combined army of the Deccan sultanates of Ahmadnagar Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda. Tanjore, which had become part of the empire back then and was being run as a feudatory kingdom by the Nayaks, was going through conflict, so the Sultan of Bijapur sent a force commanded by the Maratha general Ekoji Bhonsle, the younger half-brother of the Maratha king Shivaji, to quell it. Ekoji went on to defeat the Nayaks and become the ruler of Tanjore, establishing a Maratha Kingdom that lasted nearly 200 years.

Antique metal objects

Antique metal objects | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

Under the rule of the Maratha king Serfoji II, Tanjore paintings truly grew into their current form, building on pre-existing art traditions that share many similarities with the Mysore school of paintings, both having Vijayanagar influences. “What Serfoji does differently is that he introduced the concept of gesso with a gold sheet,” he says, adding that Tanjore paintings, which are traditionally painted on a cloth-covered board, embody the very fundamental philosophical concept of srishti, sthithi and samsara (creation, condition, destruction). “Weather changes the wooden board… the paint on the cloth will start cracking…the board, glue and cloth will move,” he says. “Tanjore paintings are meant to be destroyed.”

Metal leaf tray from Kerala

Metal leaf tray from Kerala | Photo Credit: Natesan’s Antiqarts

Why historical objects matter

At the event, Pradeep also admitted that much of his own learning came from an antique dealer he knew, who had a wealth of knowledge about the art and antiques of South India and was willing to share it. “What I learnt was a factor of the intelligent questions I asked,” says Pradeep, who firmly believes that asking the right questions and observing things more carefully is key to understanding the past.

After all, the word history originates in the Greek word ‘historía’ or inquiry, stemming from the Greek tradition of asking questions. “The whole understanding and purpose of history was to ask questions. The more questions we asked, the more we learnt what we didn’t know,” he says.

Pradeep believes our history also has lessons for our present. And if we don’t learn from them, we are condemned to repeat it, he warns. “That is what is happening today,” he says.

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