History & Culture

Tamil culture, between H&M and McDonald’s

The humid Saturday afternoon is no deterrent to a motley crowd of 80, as historian Sriram V leads it through installations laden with South Indian motifs at VR Chennai in Anna Nagar.

This is the second chapter of a three-part series of walks curated by VR Chennai and conducted by Sriram, titled Kathai, Kalai, Parampariyam. By exploring the art, architecture and their manifestations through different elements within the premises, Sriram took the group through stories about South India and its culture. “The walks will engage and amaze city residents and tourists alike, and take them on a journey that connects them with the rich, albeit forgotten heritage of the bustling, modern metropolis,” says Sidharth Yog, founder and chairman of Virtuous Retail, who leads the ideation and curation of all VR design initiatives.

Earpieces in tow, the bunch tailing the historian — some with notebooks, some with phones and a few busy clicking and recording away as Sriram speaks — has both young, old and a handful of children (blame summer break). All of them seem excited, ready to scream answers out as soon as Sriram so much as opens his mouth to ask a question.

The walk starts from the entrance of the premises that resembles a gopuram; VR Chennai pays homage to these “ornate gatehouse towers” that symbolise the entry into an urban complex, aligned along all the cardinal directions as a South Indian temple complex would have.

Etched on the walls are the key events from the colonial era upto Independence, and a timeline from 250,000 BC till the present. The afternoon breeze soon triumphs over the humidity as Sriram leads us to the next stop: the entrance to the building.

Embellished with temple doors, carvings (etched on the walls on either side) and another gopuram, the entrance is grand. The carvings speak of dynasties that built the southern peninsula. “From the Pallava dynasty of the Pre-Sangam period to the Vijayanagara empire that preceded colonial rule, the shape the art of the region can be seen here,” says Sriram as he points to the various illustrations that capture the culture and beliefs of the region.

There are illustrations of coins as well as architectural marvels like Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara temple. He continues, “All the etchings were done by local artisans.”

The weekend bustle envelopes the group almost immediately. As they walk past a mural depicting Narasimha, taking on Hiranyakashipu, on the roof, they are met with a 400 kilogram metal bell depicting Dasavataram figurines that pay homage to all the forms of Lord Vishnu. In fact, the shopping centre has bell installations at every entrance, crafted with metal, wood, glass and earth. The idea behind it: the sound of a bell is meant to announce arrival. Sandwiched between a Helvetica store and a Starbucks outlet, is a host of terracotta bells on the roof. And, on the floor is a mandala motif that represents the centre — “this particular motif can be found in most of the old South Indian homes,” explains Sriram.

Story time
  • Appar Tirunavukkarasar Nayanar, the poet-saint in his thevaram on Melakadambur temple displays eight ways of building a temple, that existed in 7th and 8th Century. Of which karakkoil is a type that’s built in the shape of a chariot; temples of this form can be seen in Melakadambur and Darasuram. In the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, the entire shrine is shaped like a chariot.
  • Hiranyakashipu had the boon that he would be killed neither by man nor animal, neither by weapons nor living tissue, neither on the ground nor the skies, not inside the house nor outside and not in the day nor night. Finally what kills him is a half-man half-animal (that is, Narasimha) — he is placed on his thigh and finally torn apart which leads to his death. This mural is placed right at the entrance, neither inside nor outside.
  • In the second tier of the Brihadeeswara temple, Thanjavur, there is a set of paintings belonging to the Chola era. But during the Nayak era, they were all painted over. Using some of the best technology, ASI removed the Nayak paintings to expose the Chola paintings, which remain temperature and humidity controlled. In the process, the Nayak paintings have been preserved as well.
  • - As narrated by Sriram V

Then Sriram guides his group past an H&M store and intrigued shoppers to reach the South exit where inscribed in verse, are narratives from Lord Krishna’s life — including Alaipayuthey Kanna, a classic poem by Venkata Kavi and Theeratha Vilayattu Pillai by Bharati.

The West exit has a mottai gopuram which honours unadorned gopurams that remain incomplete due to various reasons.

The South exit sports a host of multi-tiered hand-blown glass bells in different shapes, sizes and colours. Around the installation a mural narrates the episode of Samudra Manthan, done by artists from the Cholamandal Artists’ Village.

And facing the exit, is a contemporary representation of Madras checks, in grids of yellow, green and red.

The third session, titled Parampariyam, will be led by V Sriram on May 18, at 3.45 pm in VR Chennai. For registrations, call 9500002014. A musical performance by Casteless Collective, will follow the walk.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 2:06:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/heritage-walk-in-vr-chennai/article27116468.ece

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