Kanchipuram, about 75 km from Chennai, is an ancient town in Tamil Nadu. A pilgrim centre, it is home to richly sculpted temples and weaving of silk textiles. But not many people know that the town is also home to an interesting museum, housed in a building which dates back to the Vijayanagara period.
Called the Shakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Folk Art, it has been founded by Chennai-based historian, environmentalist and writer, Nanditha Krishna. The daughter of Shakunthala Jagannathan, she has a Ph. D. in Ancient Indian Culture from Bombay University, where she specialised in Indian art and religion and was also a Heras scholar. She also established the C.P. Art Centre and Shakunthala Art Gallery in Chennai, apart from several educational institutions. She is the author of 23 books on Indian art, culture, religion and the environment. She is currently President of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and Director of CPR Institute of Indological Research in Chennai. She not only tells us about the museum but also takes us on a walk through it.
Please tell us how the Shakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Kanchi came about?
The Museum was the brainchild of late Shakunthala Jagannathan, the former Regional Director and Deputy Director-General of Tourism, Government of India, Bombay (Mumbai) - and my mother. She gave her inheritance of antique paintings, brass utensils and lamps, musical instruments, textiles and dolls, handed down through the family, for the Museum. Some she inherited. Some were acquired. They are a living testimony to Kanchi and its rich heritage.
Brahma Mandiram, where the Museum is situated, was her ancestral home, which was gifted by her father C.R. Pattabhi Raman to the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. The basic architecture of the house has been retained, although the rooms have been modified to display the collections.
What is the speciality of the museum?
The Shakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Kanchi is one-of-a-kind, established in 2001. The collections belong to the former Madras Presidency, which includes Tamil Nadu and modern Andhra Pradesh. Kanchi was part of the old Chittoor – North Arcot district.
The building in which the museum is housed is in itself of great historical value. Kindly tell us a little about this house?
The house itself belongs to the Vijayanagara period, from the 15th -16th centuries, about 500 years old, and has been preserved to showcase a lifestyle of an age gone by, an age of spiritualism and sages. The house, with its wall paintings and beautiful 20 feet high pillars, belonged to a family of land owners of Damal village, the maternal ancestors of C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.
The architecture of Kanchi was marked by simple elegance. Unlike the baroque carved pillars and houses of the Chettinad region, the houses of Kanchi were striking in their straight lines and minimal adornment. This combination of simplicity and elegance is reflected in everything of the region, from the brass cooking utensils to textiles et al.
It was inherited by Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar's mother Rangammal, the only child of her parents. It is probably the oldest residential building of Kanchipuram.
What are the major activities of the museum?
The first and foremost is to showcase a collection of everyday items that belong exclusively to Kanchipuram, reflecting its ancient and exclusive culture. There are few, if any, museums in India that showcase local culture and artefacts.
School children are regular visitors to the Museum, learning about their past by seeing how people lived. While the entrance fee for children is very nominal, children from government schools are not charged anything.
Please name three of your most favourite displays in the museum.
Kalayana Koodam, Chitrashaala and Vastralayam
Is there any plan to take the collections (or a part of it) online keeping the pandemic situation in mind?
Maybe. Photographing and digitalising them during the pandemic is equally difficult.
Where should a visitor start? This is not only a museum but also an example of a traditional living quarters. Can you please take us on a walk through the museum?
The visitor enters past the Tinnai, through the first Kattu and into the Kalyana Koodam, where the display begins.
The Kalyana Koodam was the marriage hall where weddings took place. At other times, it functioned as a living room, where men would meet and transact business, especially the buying and selling of land and agricultural produce.
To the left, in the Kalyana Koodam, is a collection of old framed Cheriyal paintings, a form of audio-visual communication, till it was replaced by the television. The members of the Nakashi caste of Warangal (Telangana), would travel through the villages of North Arcot-Chitoor district, singing and narrating stories in the Telugu language, and using the vividly painted scroll as a visual aid. As Kanchipuram is just south of the Andhra Pradesh border, it was once part of the composite Tamil-Telugu culture.
On the far wall is a cupboard containing Kolu dolls, a part of the Navaratri tradition. There are deities, as well as scenes of daily life. Some of the dolls are locally-made out of clay, others are carved out of wood and painted in bright colours from Kondapalli, a village in Andhra Pradesh. The gilt-covered dolls are made of clay and were once fashioned in villages near Pondicherry. This art has now disappeared.
On the third wall is a collection of carved Vahanas, animal vehicles of the Gods, on which are placed figures of the appropriate deity. Murugan rides the Peacock, Shiva the Bull, Ganesha the Mouse, Saraswathi the Swan and Durga the lion.
In the centre of the Kalyana Koodam are the inevitable furniture of a South Indian home: the oonjal or swing, the “desk” where the family clerk would work, the comfortable lounge furniture and the palanquin, used to carry women of the house, the way Rangammal once travelled before the advent of the car.
On the fourth wall, to the right of the entrance doorway, there are paintings of the history of Kanchi. These alcoves were always beautifully painted as a backdrop for the musicians who sat in the central alcove and entertained the family.
In the Vadyashala, you will find instruments used in both folk and classical music. Each has a social or religious role, but some are no longer in use. The prayer room of the house contains the domestic temple and ritual metal items, used daily. On display are a variety of lamps once used to light up the house, before the advent of electricity.
The open central courtyard (Nadumitham), an essential part of a typical South Indian house, provides ventilation and light for the whole house. Stone grinders and mills used to pound flour, grind rice, lentils, herbs and spice paste and an old chekku (oil mill) are stored here. The tulsi plant in the centre is both sacred and healthy. There are also some stone icons which were a part of the family collection.
The dining area of the house was formerly decorated with wall paintings, which provided a congenial atmosphere during a meal. Today it contains a selection of old paintings from Thanjavur, Mysore and Sri Kalahasti kalamkari, and is known as the Chitrashala.
The original kitchen now displays cooking vessels of brass, copper and bronze. The vessels were large, to feed a big joint family, at a time when the cooks and helpers were always men.
The first floor was the Zenana, to which the women of the house were restricted. An aberration in South India, it was the result of the influence of the Muslims of Arcot.
The Machi was a summer room, where grains were stored or ladies spent hot summer afternoons. Copies of traditional jewellery worn by men and women in their daily lives and at weddings are on display here. The indoor games played by the women to while away their time during the hot summers are also on display.
Kanchi was an ancient centre of cotton and silk weaving, a continuing tradition. The women designed the exquisite saris and their borders, which are displayed here at the Vastralayam. The saris here are among the oldest Kanchi silk saris.
The Rooftop Room (second floor) was used to capture the summer breeze, as well as provide a silent space for meditation. The image of Kamakshi, the goddess of Kanchipuram, faces the gopuram (gateway) tower of the Temple of Ekambaranathar or Shiva as the Lord of the Single Mango Tree.
The chanting of the four Vedas (Rig, Shukla Yajur, Krishna Yajur and Sama) during the Panguni Uttiram (March-April) festival celebrating the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati has been held in this building for several hundred years. Therefore, the Museum remains closed for 15 days during the Panguni Uttiram festival.
Note: Owing to the pandemic situation, contact Chennai based C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation (tel: +91-44-24341778) or the museum (+91-44- 27260450, 27230112) for the latest timings.