Faint notes of ‘Saamajavaragamana’ struck me, when I stood at the reception of Dakshinachitra to buy an entry pass. This krithi in Hindolam is by Saint Sri Thyagaraja, who lived in the 18th century A.D. The fragrance of agarbaththis wafted through the air, bringing with it the scent of Arali (Nerium) flowers. All these eased me up for a laid-back walk inside Dakshinachitra.
Dakshinachitra is nothing like a conventional museum. The absence of glass-covered artefacts and long corridors can confuse anybody. Reconstructed traditional houses from the four south Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh find their places here. Dakshinachitra is a walk through the memory lanes of our ancestors and the lives they lived.
Checking my pass in, I crossed over a small archway, to see the vast expanse of land. Huge canopies lined up along stony pathways. A tiny market made its presence felt, thanks to the bling that were up for sale.
All the old houses that are replicated in Dakshinachitra are bought from the contractors who are assigned to demolish them by their owners. More often than not, the owners want a modern house in the places of these old houses and hence sell them off.
“We do extensive research on the background of the house and its people and try our best to recreate it here,” says Sharath Nambiar, Deputy Director of Dakshinachitra.
My favourite was the Chuttillu House, which sadly is placed at the fag end of the trail. Found in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, the structure in Dakshinachitra was specifically from Yelamanchilli, Vishakapatnam district. These houses are made of mud and circular. They have thatched roof that extends until the ground, in order to drain off the water, from the incessant rains that the storms bring. These roofs are built at an angle of at least 45 degrees to drain the rainwater away. The round shape of the building is to combat the raging winds, which are usual in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh.
The Chettiar house from Tamil Nadu was another memorable piece.
The term ‘Chettinad’ denotes the region Pudukottai, Sivagangai and Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. Trade was their main occupation and it reflected in their lavish lifestyle. Polished wooden interiors, which kept the temperature inside the house in check and a collection of expensive articles that were given as gifts during their weddings vouched for the prosperity of the Chettiars.
A typical Chettiar house has a long thinnai , which is the porch at the entrance of the house and an inner open-roof courtyard in the middle of the house. The thinnai is for the men and outsiders to meet and talk while the courtyard is for events that are more intimate. It is the sacred space and is designated only for family members.
The Syrian Christian house is characterised by the woodwork, mostly with timber and jackfruit wood, the well in the kitchen and long verandahs. The polished, dark brown wooden walls were attractive and gave a rich texture.
These houses had huge granaries too, which were built immediately at the entrance. The Syrian Christians used to pray in front of their granaries and hence their houses were built to store huge quantities of food grains. Their settlements were concentrated in the districts of Kottayam, Kollam and Aluva, mainly in the valley of the river Pamba.
Karnataka is a state, whose history is rich. From the mountainous regions of Coorg and Talacauveri to the heritage of Hampi, it has it all. The exhibit of the Chikmagalur house told the story of its original inhabitant, a Muslim trader named M.A.Ismail. The house’s special feature was the patterns in the doorways and windows made of fine limestone. Houses in Chikmagalur are built with varying grades of limestone, found in abundance in Karnataka. The most coarse grade would go to building the base of the building while the finest will be made as floral patterns over doorways.
Chikmagalur was populated by Muslim traders, credited for bringing the art of perfume oil extraction from Arabia.
On my way out, I stop by Nambiar’s office to ask about the loud voices that sang the basic notes of Carnatic music all along.
“We work with a lot of folk performers and expose them to various other styles of dance and theatre,” he says.
Dakshinachitra is also planning to hold thematic exhibitions and environment awareness programs to school students who visit the place. I take a quick walk inside the craft shop and being broke, started on my way back home, with loads of memories and pages of heavy notes.
*Dakshinachitra is located on the East Coast Road (ECR), very close to MGM and is well connected by bus.