DakshinaChitra: Recreating and reliving our heritage
The DakshinaChitra heritage museum, a project of the non-governmental organisation Madras Craft Foundation, was opened to the public on December 14, 1996. It is a cross-cultural living history museum, on the East Coast Road, and overlooking the Bay of Bengal in Chennai. In fact, it is one of a kind place. It combines and showcases art, architecture, lifestyles, crafts and performing arts of South India. The museum has been successfully bringing all these to the public in a participative, enjoyable and engaging way. Today, it is one of the major go-to places in Chennai, finding a mention in both local and international travel guides.
DakshinaChitra was conceived and executed primarily due to individual initiative. I meet Deborah Thiagarajan, the founder and chairman of DakshinaChitra, for breakfast at the verandah of the Madras Club, a beautiful and rather peaceful spot in the heart of the city.
The club building, in fact, dates back to the British colonial times. And today it is a perfect spot to discuss heritage and the importance of preserving it. I wish to ask Thiagarajan how to establish and, more importantly, sustain a museum that has become one of the major landmarks of the city.
We order both Indian and western breakfast. Soon enough, hot idlis and vadas arrive, accompanied with toast and butter, and fruits and muesli. Along with the spread, fresh hand-pressed orange juice is served.
DakshinaChitra recently collaborated with the Transregional Academy on “India and the World. New Arcs of Knowledge” held during November 24-30, 2019, in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. The seminar, which saw international participation, was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. “A broadly-conceived round-table conversation on the topic ‘The Indian Home as an Archive’ and an experiential learning workshop called ‘Making Things in India’ were part of the initiative,” Thiagarajan says.
DakshinaChitra has been archiving South Indian homes since its inception. It has been striving to recreate the 18th and the 19th century architectural ambience of each state that today forms part of South India. In fact, currently, the museum has a collection of 18 historical houses, with contextual exhibitions in each house.
Thiagarajan came to Chennai in 1970, when she got married to KM Thiagarajan, from an industrial family based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, whom she had earlier met at a university in the US. She has since earned a Master’s degree in international and development education, cultural anthropology, South Asian studies with a focus on arts of India, and a PhD in the ancient Indian art and architecture from the University of Madras.
She spent three-and-a-half years in Coimbatore, where her husband used to live and work. She was also with the Madras Institute of Development Research, and worked on the Tamil Nadu Nutrition Project and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme for CARE (Cooperation for American Relief Everywhere). This, she says, was a huge learning.
“I used to visit villages, and saw the buildings and village architecture. When we were building DakshinaChitra, there were very few architects working in the villages. We, in fact, had to bring in German and British students, who did the documentation for us,” Thiagarajan says, adding, “Now, students from all major colleges of architecture, all over the country, are regular visitors.”
Thiagarajan was passionate about textiles, silks, crafts and architecture. Her studies and travels through the southern states of the country convinced her that there were rich stories to be told. “Art objects and artefacts had to be exhibited in a manner so as to attract the young people, and sensitise them towards our culture, to make them understand what we were,” she says.
As we are about to finish the idlis and the toast, we are treated to some more hot vadais, without which no breakfast in Chennai is complete.
In 1984, Thiagarajan formed the Madras Craft Foundation, with the help of like-minded volunteers, in order to set up the museum of her dreams.
“It was not easy. It took several years before it became a reality. The Madras Craft Foundation was working on government approvals, collecting objects, documentation and, most importantly, funding,” Thiagarajan says. She adds that the South Indian business community has been very supportive. “We also managed to get some major grants,” she adds.
“After visiting the secretariat every day for a year, swallowing my ego, the state government gave a little more than 10 acres of land near the sea for the museum. The villagers, initially, were very antagonistic. We had to make friends with them, and now we have provided employment to about 50 of them,” she says.
The first major initiative to come up in 1996 was a heritage home from the state of Kerala. The legendary British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker—known for his initiatives in cost-effective and energy-efficient architecture and designs that maximised space, ventilation and light and yet maintained an uncluttered and striking aesthetic sensibility—was roped in. Thiagarajan and her team went all over South India to look for heritage houses that were about to be pulled down. They bought these structures, dismantled them, acquired the period paraphernalia, and built the same in DakshinaChitra.
Today, the DakshinaChitra heritage museum has a collection of 18 authentic historical houses, with contextual exhibitions in each house. All the houses bought and reconstructed at DakshinaChitra had been given for demolition by their owners. The authentic homes in a regional vernacular style are purchased, taken down, transported and reconstructed by artisans of the regions from where the houses came in the first place.
In addition, DakshinaChitra offers hands-on activities to promote arts to the visitors through projects and workshops. For instance, the visitors can learn to make puppets, or try their hands in the art of ceramics and pottery. “There is always a line of children waiting to work with clay,” Thiagarajan says.