Bringing it all back home

One of the most quixotic images from the Ramayana is of Hanuman flying, carrying Mount Dronagiri, which holds the life-giving herb Sanjeevani for his beloved lord Lakshmana. Hanuman flies across ably with his express powers but the task of finding the sacred herb proves difficult. He cannot identify Sanjeevani and decides to carry the entire mountain to the Lankan battlefield. The incident encapsulates the notion that mountains can be moved to preserve life. Not wishing to take a chance on what could be of value, Hanuman moves the mountain intact. He is loyal to the cause. Artists and conservationists engage with these very ideas, doggedly bringing back entire troves to preserve by renewal, sometimes in bits and pieces.

At Art Chennai 2014, Vivan Sundaram showed a video installation of his original reconstruction at Kochi Biennale of the lost port town of Muziris. Made with thousands of clay shards excavated from Pattanam, the physical evidence is a surreal reminder — “this was, but no more.”

Old Town Alexandria on the Potomac River in Washington transports us back in time, homes faithfully restored with placards in every quadrant telling us what their activities used to be. Art is an intrinsic part of this historic district: there are 82 artist studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Centre. Unattended, old buildings deteriorate, their import no longer available for society. How then, can we have that experience?

Deborah Thiagarajan established DakshinaChitra in Muttukadu as a heritage centre in 1996. Houses slated for demolition, from remote villages of the south, were relocated over the years. An arid spot was transformed to a greener environment with many homes, now 18 in number, the latest being the Chikmagalur House originally built in 1914. Madras Craft Foundation bought it, transporting pillars, doors and windows, reconstructing to “keep the house as it is”. Walking through, we can imagine how a Muslim trader once lived with his family, where they slept, ate and communed. We marvel at exquisite brocades, tiles and wooden rafters. Quite unexpectedly, we view a sunny patch of grass through a low window, recalling past architecture. The house is also a museum and a multimedia exhibit, ‘A shared heritage’, showcases Indo-Arab trade and traditions of the Muslim community in the South.

These experiences give continuity, the past shaping our present with collective memory to form our identity. In Romila Thapar’s recent memorial lecture at Kalakshetra titled ‘Constructing Heritage’, she talks of the need to look at the many patterns that form us. It is into this well of the past that we dip in to keep our fountains flush with new forms. Making art is unquestionably connected to the preservation of art and architecture.

I chanced on Shelly Jyoti’s joint show with artist Laura Kina in 2013 in the publication of Chicago Cultural Centre. Kina makes sprightly graphic portrayals of Chicago’s Devon Street, a hub of Indian and Pakistani shops. Jyoti’s art however, eluded me. Compact discs covered with Ajrakh prints hang from the ceiling. White sails, ornate garments and a large printed spread on the wall with the charka at centre — evoking something between a textile museum and a handloom exhibition. In 2014, ‘Salt: The Great March’ re-contextualising Ajrakh traditions showed in Chennai. Over eight years, Jyoti has been visiting the source — the Khatri community in Bhuj, which has, for centuries practised this craft. On one trip, Shelly found hundreds of balls of yarn, which she hoarded. When she speaks about her purpose, she takes the archivist’s stance who has found something precious. “Each time I go back, I feel I have not really understood,” she feels. And yet, she is loyal to the importance of Ajrakh and our legacy. Her carefully wrought creations are like master patterns in display cases for posterity. “I am passionate about my work,” she says, with the preserver’s worry of disappearing crafts. Each finds a different path to renew the past in their art, from the magic in mountains carried home.

(Chennai Canvas links art to design and culture through an inside look at the city)

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