Once Upon a Time in Chettinad

”  Which Indian town has hundreds of mansions with  Burmese teak pillars,  Belgian mirrors, chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese tiles, and Venetian glass?, “  I asked my friend.

” Delusions of grandeur!   Are you coming from a movie set?”   the friend was not convinced until I showed her the photos of Chettinad (land of Chettiyar).

Chettiyars, one of the richest communities in South India made their fortunes from banking and trading during the British Raj. They also established flourishing business ventures in South East Asian countries. In their heydays, they made palatial houses across  75 villages near Madhurai, Tamil Nadu.   This region came to be known as Chettinad. After independence,  declining economy forced many of them to move to the cities and other countries leaving their ancestral homes in the custody of caretakers. Many of the grand old mansions are now in a depressing state of disrepair; some are stripped off the valuables and demolished;  a couple of them are converted into heritage hotels.  Some houses are open to the public.

Our heritage trail started from  Karaikudi-the main town. The local driver Anand was an enthusiastic and enterprising guide. After a short visit to a temple, (there are a lot of temples around)   he brought us to Periya Veedu(Big House).

Periya Veedu

An old caretaker let us in for a nominal charge.   We stood at the foyer and took in the  visual feast.    Chettiyar houses follow a typical pattern: imposing entrance with arches,   huge courtyards,  granite and wood pillars, high ceilings, and they are aligned in such a way that from the entrance one can see right up to the back door. Some houses stretch along an entire street. The size and scale of ornamentation reflect their wealth and prestige.

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The reception area mugappu has raised platform thinnai on either side ; this part was used for the male guests. There was a clear demarcation between the public and private zones. With men away on business for long periods,  women were in charge of running the house. I wonder if the dynamics changed after they returned home for good!

The grand reception area

The ornate teak doors open to the main hall. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and finding colorful surprises at every turn.

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The Main Hall

The influence of different lands and cultures is visible all around: Belgian mirrors(kept covered), Italian marble, Burmese teak pillars blend beautifully with the locally made Athangudi tiles.   Anand informed that this hall can accommodate thousands of people and was used for banquets, weddings, and festivals. It was interesting to know local masons were the chief architects for these “hybrid” homes.

Lord Krishna on the ceiling

Indian mythological figures and fairies

The windows and doors have a special charm:

Sparkling floor and grand pillars

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From the main hall, we moved to an open courtyard with large verandas and several rooms :

The Ladies Wing

The ladies’domain does not have the lavish ornamentation of the main hall but is more bright, airy, and personal. Many South Indian movies are shot in this house. Anand reeled off the names and I made a note to watch it on YouTube.

Next comes the dining hall which looks like the interior of a church:

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Only three sections of the house are open to visitors.  All the other rooms (40-50) are locked up. The family members come only for a wedding or other festivals. It must cost a fortune to maintain such a house! Out of the 50-60,000 houses, there are now only 10-15,000 (estimates vary widely) and they are scattered around Karaikudi, Kanadukathan , and Puthukottai. It seems the Chettiyars vied with one another in making bigger and grander homes.

We ambled down the deserted road marveling at the architectural splendours:

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Majestic Raja’s Palace was not open to visitors

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Stucco figure of Goddess Lakshmi,goddess of wealth and prosperity is seen in many houses.

Central courtyard in a mansion-this is my favourite spot.

Open to the elements

 

Many are crumbling: IMG_9854

Frozen in a time warp

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Another repository of memories

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After the heavy dose of history and art (I was getting a bit disoriented), it was time to visit the local market. The lively place was full of people and produce: fresh and seasonal. It was fun watching the buyers, sellers, and the range of items on display.IMG_0001

We went around buying as much as we could eat and returned to the hotel.

Kolkata- Of Gods and Men

Leaving the hustle and bustle of the Flower Market, we took a ferry to go to Bagbazar, North Kolkata. It was exciting to drift through the mighty Hooghly River.   Ferry ride is a good way to beat the morning traffic.IMG_5413

This part of the city was like the sets of a vintage Bengali movie:  crumbling old mansions, trams, and hand-pulled rickshaws. One of the houses is even rumored to be haunted!

Putul Bari (House of Dolls)

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I like this cozy balcony with its intricate grill

Crying for repair and restoration

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Hand-pulled rickshaw and the yellow taxi-iconic symbols of Kolkata

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Tram tracks- Kolkata is the only Indian city with tram service and it is the oldest in Asia

Finally, we reached a warren of narrow streets lined with workshops.  This is Kumartuli- the Potters’ Colony: the place of birth of Gods and Goddesses of Hindu pantheon.

Navpreet gave a brief introduction into the history and led us to explore.

Kumartuli- where Gods are made

The tradition of idol making dates back to the 16th century when rich landlords had grand puja celebrations at their residences.  The idol makers used to come from the neighboring villages.  Later as pujas became a community affair there was more demand for the idols and the potters set up a permanent workshop/residence near the banks of Hooghly River.   Kumartuli( In Bengali kumor is potter and tuli means locality) has since grown into a lively art community.

Bengalis celebrate many festivals all year round;  Durga Puja, invoking Goddess Durga is the most popular. It celebrates the victory of the Goddess over the demon Mahishasura.  During the 10- day- long festival, idols of Goddess is worshipped in thousands of marquees (pandal) all over the city.  The festival is in September-October, though preparations start early.

Idol making is a long, elaborate process.  Meticulous preparations start from the month of  March and continue until the idols are despatched to various parts of the country and overseas.

We are here in April and today seem like any other working day for the artists. I watch the activities with awe. The artisans work silently with total concentration. The workshops are filled with statues in various stages of completion. They are carrying on an age-old craft passed from generation to generation.   Everything is handmade; the raw materials used are bamboo, hay, clay, and jute.

 

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It starts by making a framework out of bamboo and hay.   The skeletal frames are plastered with layers of clay and the structure is kept in the sun to dry.

The straw dummy of the Goddess Durga with ten arms. Amazing symmetry and proportion!

Lord Ganesha waiting for the clay coating.

The torso and limbs are sculpted first;  face, fingers, and toes are moulded later.

The tiny workshop

Many faces of the Goddess

Goddess Kali

All set for the painting and varnishing

Next step is painting and varnishing. The painted models are dressed in dazzling clothes and adorned with jewelry.  Thus a team of artists and ancillary workers transforms the shapeless mass of clay into a divine figure. The end product looks like this:

Goddess Durga with her children and the vanquished demon at her feet.

Navpreet regaled us with fascinating rites and rituals associated with idol making.  The eyes of the Goddess is drawn on an auspicious day.  Known as Chokku dan, the Goddess is supposed to descend to earth from her heavenly abode this day. I wish I can come back and see all the stages of idol making someday. It was heartening to learn that a few women are also in this predominantly male- dominated field.

From the studios, the idols are shifted to the pandals and celebrations begin.  Prayers, dance, music, feasts continue until the 10th day.  On the last day, the idols are taken on a grand procession and immersed in the river. Even Gods have a short lifespan!

After bidding farewell to Goddess Durga, the artists get busy with other festivals.   There is a popular Bengali saying that there are 13 festivals in 12 months so the artists are making idols all year round.  Their expertise is not limited to deities;  philosophers, freedom fighters, political leaders, and writers are also made here.

Vivekananda and Tagore

Apart from the workshops, there are many small stores with puja paraphernalia.

We chatted with this gracious artist; he is specialised in miniature idols.

The young man was totally immersed in the art using chiyari– a sculpting tool made from bamboo.

Goddess with celebrities

There is more. I see some idols dumped on the road:

Forlorn idols on the banks of Hooghly River

Languishing festal remnants. Wake up, Kolkata Municipality.

There is never a dull moment here in Kumartuli. It was a privilege to walk through this historic quarter and see the artists at work. One can’t help but notice their skills, simplicity, and the humble working conditions. I am so full of admiration and respect for the clay masters.