Dakshinachitra, meaning “Picture of the South”, is a unique cross-cultural museum located along the Bay of Bengal some 25 kilometres south of Chennai. A project of Madras Craft Foundation (MCF), a nonprofit organisation founded by Deborah Thiagarajan, it showcases architecture styles and cultures of south India that are evolving and vanishing at the same time.
In her preface to the site manual, Thiagarajan calls Dakshinachitra a “continuous cultural journey”. Conceptualised in the 1980s, it came into being in 1996 on 10 acres of land received from the Tamil Nadu government on a 33-year lease.
In a decade when India was busy ushering in its neoliberal era, Dakshinachitra brought on board Lawrence Wilfred “Laurie” Baker, the renowned British-born Indian architect inspired by the Gandhian tenet that a house should be built with materials found within a radius of five kilometres. Baker envisioned areas for the then four southern States, separating the historical areas from the public areas, the pathways that would weave through them, and the general ecosystem of the place.
The buildings were designed by Benny Kuriakose, conservation architect and student of Baker. Kuriakose identified houses from various regions, dismantled and transported them, then rebuilt them at Dakshinachitra using the sthapathis (architects), masons, and master carpenters from each region.
What one sees here are ways of living, and architectural styles, that have undergone a dramatic transformation. Traditional materials like timber and tiles have become expensive and the skilled labour that once worked on such material is vanishing. Recreating these old houses thus not only reconstructs different regional architectural styles but also memorialises the beliefs about life, nature, and society that these communities once held dear.
“The buildings were designed by Benny Kuriakose, conservation architect and student of Laurie Baker.”
Buildings belonging to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that are representative of the generic styles of a region and of a community have been reconstructed in Dakshinachitra. For instance, Tamil Nadu is represented by a Nattukottai Chettiyar (merchant) home, a silk weaver’s house, agricultural house, Brahmin house, and potter’s house; Kerala by a Syrian Christian home, a Hindu house, and a distinctive house from Calicut; Karnataka by the Chikmagalur house and the Ilkal weaver’s house; and Andhra Pradesh by the Ikat house and the coastal Andhra house.
The museum has 19 house museums now. “We are working on a new Kerala house [fifth] and a Coorg house,” said Sharath Nambiar, director of Dakshinachitra. Besides these, Dakshinachitra also has a conservation laboratory, art gallery, arts lab, artisan quarters, and library with ongoing work on research and dissemination.
Festivals and courses
To complement this display, Dakshinachitra also curates a rich variety of folk art through special State and thematic festivals, bringing in troupes and artisans from various regions of the country. Speaking to Frontline, Nambiar said, “The Tamil Nadu Tourism Department supports us for certain projects and festivals, such as the Aiyyanar festival in July. There is a festival almost every month; we bring in artisans from different regions and they stay for 7-10 days, making and selling craft.”
Additionally, Dakshinachitra offers certificate courses on folk arts like Thappattam, Oyilattam, Silambattam, and Karagattam from Tamil Nadu. It also offers courses and paid internships on Museum Management where students are trained in archiving, conservation, premises management, budgeting, administration, and so on. As Nambiar said, “It is important for children to know how their forefathers lived. There is a huge disconnect between rural and urban India. We are trying to bridge that gap.”
- Dakshinachitra is a unique cross-cultural museum located along the Bay of Bengal some 25 kilometres south of Chennai.
- It is a project of Madras Craft Foundation (MCF), a nonprofit organisation founded by Deborah Thiagarajan.
- Buildings belonging to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that are representative of the generic styles of a region and of a community have been reconstructed in Dakshinachitra.
- Dakshinachitra also curates a rich variety of folk art through special State and thematic festivals, bringing in troupes and artisans from various regions of the country.