When we first came to Chennai, several people told us that a visit to Dakshinachitra would be an apt introduction to the art and life of southern Indian states and would help us ‘north Indians’ feel inducted. Time flew by, months passed and finally one Sunday morning we decided to head to the road to Dakshinachitra.
As a definition, “Dakshinachitra” literally means ‘picture of the south’ and every effort has been put in by the makers of this unique exhibition to make it just that. It is a showcase of the art, craft, lifestyle and homes of traditional south Indians.
The southern states of India, namely Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are more often than not clustered together as one group of homogenous species. But if you intent to look beyond the coconut, rice, palm trees, curly hair and burly figures, there arises a distinct flavour and soul of each region and each state. It is this essence of the different southern states of India that Dakshinachitra brings forth. Here too the states are clustered together but they assemble keeping their diversities alive.
Entering the Wonderland
The entrance to Dakshinachitra is like entering a typical south Indian home. There are the archetypal chocolate brown pillars, the thatched roof and the door that effectively restricts the view and thus the imagination of what we may find inside. And unquestionably the inside is well worth hiding because just like Alice’s wonderland once you enter through the door, the world you see is totally different from the world you left behind.
It all begins with the craft shop, the library, the exhibition hall and the restaurant. And while these delights are tempting, it is a wise decision to visit them on the way back so as to give more time to other things in the premises spread over 10 acres of land.
Dakshinachitra is divided into different sections according to the different southern states. There is the Tamil Nadu section, the Kerala section, the Karnataka and the Andhra Pradesh section all connected via maze of brick roads lined with palms trees and other green foliage. These provide shade as well as paint the view of a vivid and green Indian countryside.
Houses and Crafts
Each section has houses, not the miniature version or models, but the actual lived-in ones dating back to 18th and 19th century India. You can enter them, visit the different rooms, see the utensils that the residents used, the place they said their prayers, their favourite chair and favourite window to the world. These homes are also a glimpse of the social status of the people living in it and their trade. So while the agriculturist and the merchant of Tamil Nadu have sprawling mansions, the potter’s house or the basket weaver’s mud house represent their lowly means of income and spaces they have in their homes to accommodate their trade and their families.
To give the houses more of a lived in feel and involve the visitors, there are different artisans sitting at strategic points all over the premises. Some can teach you how to make a pot, some show and help you weave a basket out of dried palm leaves, some teach block printing while some others let you buy authentic musical instruments like the Rustic ektara – the Indian crude version of the violin with a single string.
To break the monotonous pattern there are also puppet shows, glass blowing demo, and folk dance classes for the enthusiastic ones. These activities apart from entertaining also are a way to show kids and teach them something of the rich Indian heritage.
As mentioned earlier, Dakshinachitra has a craft shop that is worth a visit because there lies many miracles of Indian handicraft and handloom. From handbags to sarees, upholstery to jewelry, books to book marks, you will find plenty of items stored here that could bring back pleasant memories of the visit. While the trinkets like beautiful carved keyrings, earrings and pens could be grabbed in plenty, there are also some stunning antiques, showpieces and gems that would attract the real collectors of art.
Apart from this craft shop, there are also the stalls given to different artisans from various parts of the country. These have craftsman from Manipur selling pottery and weavers from Rajasthan selling their colourful garments. There are potters from Bengal displaying the famous terracotta pots and curios and also people of Kashmir showcasing woodwork of the heavenly land of the north in this distant southern land.
You really do not need a pocket full of money to take some of these artefacts, just ample space in your handbags and suitcases to carry all these delicate artware back home.
What we found in Dakshinachitra is the essence of India that is fast losing itself in the crowd of malls and pizzas. It is a superb weekend gateway when you don’t want to go far and yet leave behind all your everyday troubles. It is an excellent teacher for those of the younger generation who can touch, feel and experience art, craft and architecture that are hundreds of years old and carry forward the beacon a little longer. It is also a means of livelihood for all the artists who are becoming as endangered as the crafts they make. It is aptly a picture of South India for a tourist who cannot make it to all the southern states but still can feel their individual charm here.
When to go
Dakshinachitra is open all through the year daily from 10.00 am till 6.00 pm except Tuesdays. There are also guest houses within the premises that can be reserved in advance to enhance your experience of a South Indian holiday.
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