Dakshin Chitra, A Slice of Old-style living
Madras, or Chennai as it is called now, is not particularly known for its tourist attractions. Compared to many other ancient Indian cities, it is only a few hundred years old, having become a place of any repute only when the British established it as their bastion in the south. It doesn’t really have any scenic spots, the beaches are overcrowded and its colonial-era buildings, which would have been worth a look, are often in a sad state of repair.
When I have out of state visitors, therefore, being a local myself, I am hard pressed for ways to entertain them, show them something of the sights. My uncle and family who live in the USA visited us for the summer, and the kids having left India when they were fairly young, I wanted to show them something of Madras. The temples? Might interest the parents but too boring for the kids. Beaches? As mentioned, overcrowded and besides we had all been there so many times!
I heard from a friend then about a place called Dakshin Chitra, located on the scenic East Coast Road that leads from Madras to Pondicherry. What I heard was this, “Oh at Dakshin Chitra, they have these old houses which were lying in a bad shape and these guys have put them back together here.” Some kind of museum then? I know how boring and unimaginative most Indian museums can be. But reports gathered from a few more people all pointed to a good thing here, and we set off. If you have ever been an unofficial tour guide for a large party consisting of parents, assorted aunts, uncles and kids, then you know how anxiety inducing it can be. Will the destination satisfy everybody’s tastes? And who can possibly account for everyone’s tastes?
We drove out of Madras for about 45 minutes from Thiruvanmiyur (possibly the last stop that can be called city). Dakshin Chitra turned out to be nothing like a museum, or at least not like any I have seen. Located on a large tract of land, it is devoted to preserving the traditional architecture and art forms of the four Southern states, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Once upon a time, wealthy landlords and traders in these states built themselves beautiful houses in various styles, often importing materials such as original teak wood from Burma. Gradually as the descendants of these men moved away from the villages, the houses were left abandoned or in a state of neglect. The Dakshin Chitra foundation has identified some of these beautiful houses and painstakingly brought them to Madras, brick by brick, stone by stone, dismantled and put together again.
It is interesting to see how architectural details mirror the lives of the people, their community activities and their needs. The Kerala houses for example have in-built spacious lofts specifically for coconut storage. This is because the Kerala landscape and farming is dotted with coconut palms, and these were stored and put to many uses such as cooking, coir making and for many household and farm articles such as ropes and pulleys. In fact one of the houses has an ingenious arrangement intended to make life easier for the women of the house. The kitchen is equipped with a large window that directly overlooks the well in the courtyard. So the women could just lean out of the kitchen and pull up a pail of water using the coconut coir rope whenever required. We must remember that this was a time when piped water still did not exist and women often did most of the heavy chores of the house themselves.
In the Tamil Nadu section, I saw many of these heavy implements used, even by my grandmom’s generation – stone implements to de-husk rice, manual grinders to grind the batter for traditional breakfast dishes. A tough life indeed! In some of the houses are also arranged the furniture used in those times, ornate writing desks, and easy-chairs. For the most part however, people sat on the floor or on mats spread out in the rooms, in long corridors framing the rooms or in the spacious inner courtyards open to the sun. These houses also contain a raised platform outside the doorstep called the ‘thinnai’. This is where men could entertain visitors, keeping them away from the inner life of the house where women could live in privacy.
Apart from the houses (some of them arranged in the same way that a typical village street would be) there are houses where arts such as ethnic pottery, glass blowing and palm leaf painting are showcased. Visitors can also try their hand at these, for a modest fee of Rs. 5-10! My cousins were thrilled to make their own little pots on the potter’s wheel, though the shapes could have passed for something else! We spent so much time meandering through these, oohing and aahing over these remnants of the past that we couldn’t finally find the time to visit the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka sections. Well, I plan to go there another day soon!