How legendary dancer Chandralekha collected rare untensils and vessels for 24 years


For 24 years, dancer Chandralekha visited markets to save pawned vessels from being sold to foundries, where they would be converted into nuts and bolts. Now, put together, they document the past

These stories are being told in bronze and copper. At Varija Art Gallery, DakshinaChitra, there is a fascinatingly diverse collection of traditional, and often rare, utensils.

There are kudams, thavalais, vengala paanais... all collected by the late, legendary Chennai-based dancer and choreographer Chandralekha, between 1960 and 1984. Her long-time friend, the artist Dashrath Patel, helped build this collection, which Chandralekha called her ‘rescue and recovery’ project. And interns at the museum, curated the show, making it a remarkable labour of love, from inception to this exhibition, comprising about 300 pots.

How legendary dancer Chandralekha collected rare untensils and vessels for 24 years

“Why are water pots round, with a narrow neck? Why are cooking vessels shaped in a certain way?,” asks Sreya Mukherjee, an intern. She explains the reasons: The chore of fetching water for the household was usually assigned to women, and hence water pots were designed to sit snugly on her hip. Kitchen utensils were made with a broad round base since wood-fired or coal stoves were widely used those days. Geography too played a role in designing vessels to carry water; which is why in drought-prone areas in Rajasthan, pots were designed to be stacked one on top of the other.

How legendary dancer Chandralekha collected rare untensils and vessels for 24 years

There are jewellery boxes in different sizes and shapes, speaking volumes about the social status of the women who owned them. “We also understand that a typical Indian household focused a lot on health and the Ayurvedic way of living,” says Sreya, pointing out copper vessels that were used to boil drinking water.

Rescued from oblivion
  • The exhibition comprises around 300 vessels in brass and copper that have been gifted to DakshinaChitra by the Chandralekha Archive at Spaces
  • Sadanand Menon, managing trustee of Spaces, says that the Chennai-based dancer/choreographer collected them between 1960 and 1984.
  • He describes how, in the early 1960s, Chandralekha noticed the small pawn-shops of Madras stuffed with these utensils. A series of droughts during those years in Southern districts, forced many to come to Madras in search of jobs and livelihood. These people pledged their belongings when they ran out of cash, and often were unable to redeem them. The pawn shops sold these vessels to agents, who in turn sold them by weight to foundries and smelting units in North Madras, where they were melted and converted into nuts and bolts.
  • In a bid to save these valuable hand-crafted vessels from being destroyed, Chandralekha started buying as many of them as possible. She learnt that vessels from the pawn shops were brought by trucks on Fridays and unloaded on the pavements of the famous ‘metal market’ behind Central Railway Station. From here, they were picked up on Saturdays by lorries and sent to the foundries. Every Friday, she would set out to the market and return, after some hard bargaining, with three or four ‘rescued’ vessels.

The exhibition has been thematically organised into five different segments. There is the Water Storage collection. Vessels on Wheels feature those used by milkmen and dabbawalas who transported milk and food. This section also has milk containers and tiffin carriers in unusual designs.

Under Rituals come objects used in worship. Leisure features the hookah, tobacco, betel leaf boxes, and musical instruments.

The Kitchen section has the highest number of vessels, which are further classified into Preparation, Cooking, Serving and Storage.

“This was one of our most interesting projects; every object here has a story,” says Anjali Rajiv, who was part of the team that put it together. She adds, “Social documentation need not always be art or paperwork. It can also be a collection of objects such as these.”

The exhibition is open to visitors till December 30, from 10 am to 5 pm, at DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum, Muttukadu. For details, call 24918943.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 1:31:54 PM |

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