Support for the Project from Victoria and Albert Museum.

Ever since I got involved with mural paintings, I have felt its close affinity with the textile arts, kalamkārī in particular. I made the pitch that mural paintings should be replicated on cloth, using kalamkārī techniques, reasoning that the life of the cloth can be 500 years, or, if carefully preserved, more. And how do I know that the cloth can last that long? I know because there are painted cloths in museums everywhere that are as old, some much older. Have I seen one?

Not until I had a chance to be in London last week and I set foot in the South Asia section of the Victoria and Albert museum. A whole array of painted/dyed cloths were on display, several hundred years old. It was nice to find out that I was after all true. It was also a little disappointing that the one painting that I wanted to see, a kalamkārī of a brahmin flower-picker, which I happened to see in a V&A publication on Indian sculpture, was not there on display. I looked around a second and a third time to see if the exhibit had been removed as it happens sometimes. There was no such sign either. I had just one day for the museum in London and could not investigate it any further.

I post below pictures of some cloth exhibits from V&A. When in the museum, I had no idea that V&A let you use most of its exhibit images for free. So I went about taking photographs of the exhibits. Back home and searching the site for further details, I discovered that V&A actually allowed high-res downloads (wow!) and let you use them for free (wow!! wow!!). The accompanying texts are either from or based on the Museum's 'Public Access Description' for the exhibits.

A large (274 x 192 cm), rectangular painted cotton (kalamkārī) cloth, from late 18th-early 19th century, painted and dyed with figures in red and black, depicting the Tirupparankunram temple, near Madurai, and designed for hanging in the temple during festivals. This cloth is very mural-like in composition (maybe a mural once existed at the Tirupparankunram temple) and in the way label inscriptions are placed (in Tamil) for easy identification of the narrative elements in the cloth. One can even see the hill-top mosque in in the upper register, a tell-tale sign that the temple depicted is indeed Tirupparankunram.

Detail from the lower register showing the temple gate-tower and the temple car parked in front.

Detail from the right side of the top register showing the marriage of Murugan (Subrahmanya) and Deivayanai.

Palampore (made 1740, Coromandel Coast, 261.5 x 281.8 cm). The design of this chintz hanging is based on a print by J.B.H.Bonnart (d.1726) illustrating an episode from Don Quixote, with Don Quixote bidding farewell to Sancho Panza, who is seated on a donkey in the middle of the scene. A leafy tree in the original print has been transformed into the exotic flowering tree typical of export chintzes of the period.

Quilt (made 1700-1750, Coromandel Coast, 217 x 335 cm). The density and variety of the reds, blues and purples in this piece bear witness to the great skills of the Indian dyers who made it by a variety of time-consuming processes involving mordanting and resist-dyeing.

Palampore (made 1700, Coromandel Coast, 190.5 x 223.5 cm) This bed-cover or hanging has been cut down from its original rectangular shape, presumably to fit a bed. The design shows an elaborate and exotic flowering tree growing out of an urn of European design, and flanked by vases of flowers that have clearly been copied from European prints. This type of imaginary tree is typical of the designs used by the chintz painters of the Coromandel Coast in south-east India for furnishing fabrics commissioned by western patrons.

Crucifixion (made 18th century, Coromandel Coast, 102.5 x 137 cm). This striking Crucifixion scene was made in South-East India, Coromandel Coast, to be used in an Armenian church. This particular design is based on Armenian illustrated Gospels of the 12th-14th century, although the Indian craftsman who drew the design has altered it subtly. The hanging is made in the same mordanting and resist-dyeing technique that was used for the export chintzes that were popular in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. The central figure of Christ is flanked by two female figures on either side. Three angels collect blood from Christ's wounds. The sun and moon are shown at the top. The scene is surrounded by a reciprocal merlon border. The hanging is backed with indigo-dyed dark blue cotton cloth and is patched with printed cotton in several places. There are stains, mostly from wax, on both front and back.

I have come across numerous references to cloth paintings of Indian origin, kalamkari wall hangings and canopies in particular. I hope to compile and share a short bibliography soon.

July 27, 2011. Modified August 5, 2011.


IFA Grantee Meet.

On June 1, 2011, IFA organised a grantee meet in Bengaluru to let fellow grantees meet each other and informally share the projects. It was such a pleasure. You couldn't ask for a better audience.

I met Jatin Vidyarthi, an old friend and fellow grantee, and many grantees who quickly became friends, as well as those wonderful people at IFA.

There was Ajinkya Shenava, a very young Dhrupad student; Justin McCarthy and Sandhya Kumar, respectively a dancer and filmmaker, who, with an IFA grant, are doing a film about Kshetrayya and his compositions. Justin and Sandhya are Delhi-based and they have to do the bulk of their filming in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh, Kshetrayya territories, and so we found each other.

There was Ashavari Majumdar, a kathak dancer involved with the interpretations of different versions of sūrpaṉakā as represented in different versions of Rāmāyaṇa.

I met Shashwati Talukdar, also working with mural paintings, but with a completely different perspective. Well, we all learn.

I met two people from the Sunlight Trust (GOA CAP), Madhavan and Edson, who showed great energy and enthusiasm for the hard way - pre-digital photography! Madhavan, I discovered, comes from where I myself do, east Thanjavur district in Tamilnadu. Over lunch and after, we conversed in rustic Tamil and became natural friends.

And there was Epsita Halder, researching into the songs of Muharram, in West Bengal. I am looking forward to Epsita's travelogue.

A few grantees could not make it to the meet. All the same, I came back from the meet with tremendous energy. We also got to interact with everyone at IFA, the Programme Executives, the Directors, Fund Raisers, Accountants, PRO... Web Development team. My apologies if I have missed anyone.

June 3, 2011.


Field Trip One. Vilanallur, Kanchi Pallavaram, Dhimmarayan Pettai... in and around Kanchipuram.

We set out to look for and record musical instruments featured in the Chengam mural (see picture below). It is the season for Mahabharatha kootthu in northern Tamilnadu, especially in and around Kanchipuram, Gingee and Tiruvannamalai. Reasoning that kootthu is a good 'place' to look for and spot musical talent, we drove down to Vilanallur, on the road from Vandavasi to Cheyyar. It was the penultimate day of the 18-night Mahabhartha performance at Vilanallur. One of us knew one of the Mahabharatha performers, Vinod, performing with Purisai Sambandan's party. We reached Vilanallur around 11.00 am and found Vinod and party sleeping in a local school. Later that night, we would camp in the same school too and watch the Mahabharatha performance, using Vilanallur as the base camp for our exploration.

In the Chengam mural, these musicians occur in the southern panorama, on the lowest of the three registers, leading the palanquin that takes Sita back to Rama after the war. From L to R: ciṟutārai, a straight brass pipe with no finger holes; kombu, a horn-shaped brass pipe; and mattaḷam, a double-headed drum, played with a stick in one hand.

Post lunch that day, we got one of the performers in Sambandan's party to take us to a village nearby, Kanchi Pallavaram, which apparently had tārai players. Our guide stood us in the street corner and went into one of the houses and emerged from it with a tall man for company, his name, Mani. A brief discussion later, Mani took us into his house and pulled out from the wooden frame supporting the tiled roofing a long brass pipe. It looked spectacular when he brought it out into broad daylight - shimmering, about the length of a javelin, expanding at one end instead of narrowing and sharpening. Mani pulled a bamboo stick from inside the tārai, poured water down the pipe, rested it on the bamboo stick and blew a few long notes. Jackpot! We asked for a few minutes to set up so we could record. In the meantime, Mani pulled out another tarai and got another player to accompany him. Click here for the audio.

Recording in progress at Kanchi Pallavaram. From L to R: Gandhirajan, a boy spectator from the village, Madhu Viswanathan, Sarangarajan, Thanigaimani (hidden behind the video camera) and Mani the tārai player (foreground).

It was quite clear that we were not going to find all the three instruments featured in the mural together. We were prepared to record them separately and put them together as needed. I had a printout of the musicians in the Chengam mural, so I could show it around and ask. Pictorial reference is also handy because these instruments often carry different, regional names.

We finished with Mani and returned to Vilanallur. The Mahabharatha performance followed that night as we kept our ears out for the musicians. The following morning, they made this huge mud installation of Duryodhana and painted it brilliantly for the last act in which Duryodhana would be destroyed by Bhima's mace. We could not stay back for the climax and moved on, nonetheless getting a good slice of Vilanallur and the Mahabharatha kootthu.

The Draupadi Amman temple at Vilanallur.

The processional idols.

Mud installation of Duryōdhana.

The mast for Arjuna's penance.

Adding colour to the mud now dried up.

Duryōdhana, now ready for the destruction.

Out of Vilanallur and we headed to Dhimmarayan Pettai. There we encountered this extraordinary musician who performed for a riveting hour and a half on half a dozen instruments. His name is Sundaramurthy. He did not play any of the instruments that we were looking for and even so we videographed all we could. He sang the Tamil devotional poems with great erudition. The Tamil names of the instruments (supplied by Sundaramurthy) are: civaṉkait tavaṇṭai (a double headed hand drum with a narrow middle to grip and with slingshots attached to beat the drum with wrist action), uṭukkai (similar to civaṉkait tavaṇṭai, except, the drum is beaten with hands while at times a bent stick is moved around on the drum's surface to bend the sound), jeyakaṇṭi or cēmakalam (trumpet), cañku (conch), pūrikai or pāñkā or vīrappūri (gong). While recording Sundaramurthy in his residence, I sat right in between the video camera and the audio recorder and so did not take still pictures or you would hear shutter clicks every now and then.

We moved onto Vishnukanchi next where we did twice better than the first day, literally. We met a group that played four tārais together.

Listening to the foursome (Jeyaraman, Rathnavel, Jagadeesan and Gopal) you could feel the martial atmosphere of the War Canto painted in the Chengam mural. The quartet was also playing the same tune as Mani did the previous day. Perhaps this is the song of the region? The war cry of the Pallavas who ruled from Kanchipuram? Perhaps if we find a tārai player in Chola or Pandya country, they will play a different tune...? I will post here the videos we shot of Sundaramurthy and Jeyaraman & co very soon.

We set out on this trip hoping to record the ciṟutārai (the small tārai), featured in the Chengam mural, but we only found the long tārai. We did not find the other two instruments featured in the Chengam mural. We did find a kombu player near Kanchipuram but he was very dodgy. So, we skipped.

Back in Chennai, I got in touch with Dr. K.A. Gunasekaran, Director, International Institute of Tamil Studies and an authority on Tamil folk music and showed him the Chengam pictures. On our next field trip, I reckon that he will be there.

May 27, 2011. 5 days after returning from the first field trip with the IFA grant.