The future of architecture is culture. Philip Johnson
In a culturally rich country like India, you will find influences of art, history and mythology everywhere, except in one place – yes, you got it right – the shopping malls that have come up in all the cities – they are all “air-conditioned, sanitized, standardized” and devout of creativity.
So when I saw the posting about a culture walk being done by Mr Sriram V titled “Stories of South India” at Chennai’s newest shopping arcade, the VR Mall, Anna Nagar I was intrigued. If anyone can narrate elements of history in a place as modern as a mall it can only be Sriram V, for Madras (as we natives still call Chennai) outsiders, he is our most loved historian and storyteller. I signed up and turned promptly today (25th May 2019) 11 AM in the lobby of VR Mall.
The 90 minutes walk covered three aspects as we were led around the mall:
- கதை (Kathai in Tamil means stories) was about tales of Dasavataram (the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu). Across the mall, there are installations depicting all the ten manifestations – Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Ram, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki.
- கலை (Kalai in Tamil means art) was about the indigenous art and architecture of South India.
- பாரம்பரியம் (Parampariyam in Tamil means heritage) was about the tradition and history of Madras and surrounding regions.
The walk started from the east entrance called Uloka Gopuram (Metal Tower) which had carvings of the various dynasties that ruled South India. All the etchings were done by local artisans. The Cholas were seafaring rulers and the revenues earned abroad was used in the building of magnificent structures like the Tanjore Big Temple (தஞ்சைப் பெரியக்கோயில்).
Matsyah Kurmo Varahas-cha Narasimhas-cha Vamana
Ramo Ramas-cha Ramas-cha Buddha Kalki-cha te dasa
The Fish, the Tortoise, the Boar, the Man-lion, the Dwarf,
Parasurama, Dasarathi Rama, Balarama, Buddha and Kalki – thy ten.
Sriram narrated the story of the famous Saivate Saint, Tirunilakanta Nayanar, who was a maker of mud pots living with his wife. They both worshipped Lord Siva in the form of Nilakanta (“Blue Throated one”). Due to the misconduct of the husband, the couple were living without any physical contact, that’s when Lord Siva deciding to play his trick comes as a yogi and gives them a mud pot to keep safe in their house till he returns. Upon his return, the pot goes missing and the couple is forced by Lord Siva to join their hands to take a dip in the holy temple lake and swear their innocence.
Near one of the entrances, I noticed the inscription of a popular song by Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi (1700-1765) who was one of the pioneering composers in Indian classical Carnatic music. It has been sung beautifully by veteran artist Smt Aruna Sairam here and it is a favourite of mine.
என்ன பதில் சொல்வேனடா என் அருமை கண்மணியே
மாடு மேய்க்கும் கண்ணா நீ போக வேண்டாம் சொன்னேன்
பாலருடன் வீதியிலே பந்தாடுறான் என்று சொல்லு
தேடி நீ வருகையிலயே ஓடி வந்து நின்றிடுவேன்
போக வேண்டும் தாயே தடை சொல்லாதே நீயே
– திரு ஊத்துகாடு வேங்கட கவி
Near the unfinished Maram Gopuram (Wooden Tower) Sriram narrated the history of Bleeding Madras – a spun yarn that was woven in India, whose dyes not being colourfast will result in bleeding and giving a new look, of Madras Check design and of Kalamkari cotton textile which is now identified with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana was actually spread across the whole of South India.
The last stop was North Entrance (Kaliman Gopuram or Earthen Tower) which sports paintings showing the timeline of the City of Chennai (Madras):
- from the Paleolithic Age (500,000 BCE or older) confirmed by stone tools from that age discovered by geologist Robert Bruce Foote in 1863 at the Brigade Ground at Pallavaram, Chennai.
- to 22 August 1639 Francis Day acquiring the land for St.George.
- and continues to the time of Indian national flag being hoisted over Fort St.George.
Lastly, the board of Virtuous Retail, the promoters of VR Mall, Chennai for taking the effort and the interest in incorporating local heritage in their commercial shopping malls. I have taken inspiration from here to incorporate in all my future construction projects (if I do one!).