History & Culture

Madras Week 2020 | Three young Chennai architects talk about heritage household objects that connect them to the city

During lockdown, when everyone has the time, why not dig out the family treasure from the attic? All you need to do is just look around carefully and distinguish treasure from trash, and you are sure to end up with artifacts, antiques and old valuable objects in your home. “Anything old is valuable, and has a bit of social history that helps us understand more than just that object. We have curated numerous antiques which tell us how Madras was 100 years ago,” says Thirupurasundari Sevvel, architect and certified restorer.

Thirupurasundari founded Nam Veedu Nam Oor Nam Kadhai (Our house, our village, our story) in 2013, along with architects T Sivagamasundari and Akshayaa Selvaraj, who shared a similar passion for social history and heritage. “We were motivated by Vincent D’Souza to focus on local history and heritage,and we began to focus on local history, people and household heritage objects,” says Thirupurasundari, adding, “Antiques are not always exotic, but even simple everyday objects such as vessels, bus tickets, handkerchiefs or cloth bags have a story to tell.”

The team has so far organised over 100 household heritage and personal history exhibitions in the city, including virtual ones during lockdown. And during the lockdown she organised the exhibition on the virtual platform. The trio talks about objects from their family that helped them connect with the Madras of a bygone era.

Charting the family course

For Thirupurasundari, discovering her great grandfather’s engineering tool box and a marine compass gave a lot of insight into the family’s history. “My great grandfather, P Muthukrishnan worked in the Railways as an engineer and this box was his: he had handed it over to my father. The box, which had many layers and slots for tools, was made in 1932, and we noticed Dindigul written on it. The German Kriegsmarine ship compass, well-preserved in a leather pouch is another object that helped me understand my great grandfather’s German connections. This nautical compass, made in 1953 out of bronze with mixed metal, was a gift from a German friend who was in the Navy.”

Madras Week 2020 | Three young Chennai architects talk about heritage household objects that connect them to the city

A certified restorer, she also had the chance to read about 34 love letters written by an 86-year-old lady. “I saw Madras through her eyes, her description of the beach which then had huge trees; in one of the letters she has given a graphic description of the Chintadripet Bridge and she has in one letter delved in detail about scarf shopping in Bunder street and Kannadi (sun glasses) shopping at Purasawalkam. The rich visual imagery in almost all of her letters was a way to understand how the city was then,” says Thirupurasundari.

The bridge that connects

Akshayaa’s fascination for antiques started when she was studying Architecture. Her first discovery was a porcelain doll handed to her by her grandmother, who was born in Mayiladuthurai but lived in Chennai after marriage. Palingu bommai as it is called, was used by young girls as a toy back then.

Later, Akshayaa discovered a glass measuring jar, glass juicer and glass inkwell.

Madras Week 2020 | Three young Chennai architects talk about heritage household objects that connect them to the city

The inkwell, once used by her great grandfather, is today used by Akshayaa for her illustration work. “A glass ink well is rare; normally ink wells were made of wood. Similarly, the juicer is a beautiful piece of work, and must be over 90 years old. We continue to use it: it’s aesthetic, simple and functional.”

The objects may have origins in Europe, but came all the way to Madras, and continue to bridge different generations of the family.

History on paper

T Sivagamasundari, architect and materials conservator, decided to focus on paper antiques and found some significant documents in her grandfather’s kai petti (cash box) made of wood. “My grandfather, MP Chidambaram, spent many years in Ceylon before returning to Tamil Nadu, and visited Madras frequently. It was in the kai petti that I discovered his passport, knife, coins, some documents and bills, that enabled me to understand family history and life in Madras during his time,” she says.

Madras Week 2020 | Three young Chennai architects talk about heritage household objects that connect them to the city

The Spencer & Co Bill (1961), Collins Pocket Diary (1935), an Indian passport (1950- 1960), a letter written by Congressman RV Swaminathan to her grandfather in 1952 and Congress party election manifesto (1961) are some of the paper antiques she has preserved. She says, “As I went through these documents, I felt a sense of joy and wanted to time-travel back to the Madraspattinam days.”

Tram rides and mock drills

84-year-old SA.Govindaraju, has converted his garage into a second-hand book shop, Rare Books, in RA Puram, Chennai. “Anything vintage in print, be it advertisements or magazines or newspaper cuttings, I got them all. I started collecting books in 1956 and the passion continues. I don’t collect textbooks, and I have out of print books of fiction as well. My collection also has some black and white photographs as well,” he says.

Madras Week 2020 | Three young Chennai architects talk about heritage household objects that connect them to the city

Reminiscing about the bygone era, when trams were running in Madras city, he says that there were two routes only, the south route and north route and he has travelled extensively in the south route. “I was living in Mannady, so I used to board the tram in Parry’s corner and it would terminate at Santhome. Central,Mount Road, Royapettah, Luz and the final stop was near the Santhome Basilica. The ticket cost half anna and I still have preserved the tram tickets,” he chuckles.

“During World warII, bunkers were built in the city, and there was one located closer to my house. I had participated in the mock drills. We all had to run to the bunker when the siren went on, and stay there until we got the signal to come out, and I remember participating in this exercise a couple of times,” he says.

Know your family

Nam oor…, conducts online programme, Social history Album, for kids and young adults. Participants they will be guided to trace the last seven generations in their family, and the material will be sent by post. After completing, participants will have to post it back to the team, and they will create their individual social history scrapbook and send it back. The participants can discuss via phone during the process and this is a sure way for them to connect with the city they are growing up in. For details, call: 9444253532 @namveedu_namoor_namkadhai


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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 8:02:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/antiques-of-old-madras-madras-heritage-objects-madras-day-2020/article32406374.ece

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