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Vol. XXVII No. 20, February 1-15, 2018

Mamallapuram not its only focus

by Charukesi V.


Drawn towards the Pallava art at Mamallapuram, Prof. S. Swaminathan, a retired professor of Mechanical Engineering from IIT, Delhi, has been working with passion on documenting the monuments there and sensitising people about our heritage. The Tamil Heritage Group is a mix of young and old who make presentations with confidence and hear comments by Prof. Swaminathan. Gopu, a researcher and speaker on heritage, and Badri Seshadri, publisher, intervene when clarifications are required. After watching one of the sessions recently, which lasted nearly five hours, I spoke to Prof. Swaminathan. Excerpts from the interview:

Are you focusing only on Mamallapuram?

No. As a group, we have made several visits and prepared extensive documents for heritage sites like Pudukkottai, Sithannavasal and Ajanta, besides Mamallapuram. Every year we go for site visits. In January 2016, we visited Patadakal, Aihole, Badami and Mahakuta. It was Dravida Utkala Jatra to Bhubaneswar, Konarak and Puri in January this year. We stay at each place for five days and hold serious sessions as site seminars in the evenings. We hold training sessions in Chennai for those interested and ask them to give power point presentations before a small gathering.

Tell me about your presenters.

Ashwin Sridhar teaches at KFI and has served as vice president at Citibank and Amazon. Raghav Harikrishna is an engineering student in a local college. Sivasankar Babu is an ex-banker. S. Narayanan is an executive. Mohan is a teacher. Vallabha is a heritage enthusiast and speaker. They have no ego problems! You have observed them presenting their points of view. Let me put them in capsule form:

Ashwin dealt with the ever-green debate on whether the great Penance was that of Arjuna or Bhagiratha. According to Michael Rabe, there is sculptural evidence for both sides and, therefore, is meant to be both! On the Penance, there is no finality yet, whether it was Bhagiratha’s or Arjuna’s as no one is certain, adding to its mystic value. Both sides have very weighty arguments in their favour. Now Rabe comes in to add further confusion, saying it is both!

Michael Lockwood stayed for over 30 years in Chennai and he visited Mamallapuram several times. Raghav explained the logical approach raised by Michael Lockwood and his fellow academics at Madras Christian College, in rebutting Nagasamy’s important 1962 paper ‘New light on Mamallapuram’, in which he had claimed that Rajasimha II was the sole author of all the monuments in Mamallapuram and that the earlier arguments of Jouveau-Dubreil and others have no basis.

Sivasankar Babu described the analytical method used by Michael Lockwood and his colleagues in explaining the development of Pallava art, using Somaskanda as an example. Narayanan highlighted the very few instances in which Mamallapuram has appeared in literature and also the long list of dynasties and kings, who ruled over the area.

Mohan traced the evolution of the rock cut architecture of the Pallavas, based on K.R. Srinivasan’s ‘Cave Temples of the Pallavas’, beginning with Mahendra Varman’s temple at Mandagapattu. Vallabha Srinivasan narrated the important mythological stories that illuminate the sculptural panels at Mamallapuram, like Mahishasuramardhini, Ananthasayana with Madhu-Kaitabha, Trivikrama, etc. V.K. Srinivasan summarised Dr. Rajeswari’s book on Pallava Sculpture. We saw a Telugu film clipping, with a song on the glory of Mamallapuram, for about three minutes during his presentation.

Apart from N.S. Ramaswamy, who dwelt extensively on the subject of Mamallapuram, I also draw attention to the 1784 book, probably the earliest one to be published by the Asiatic Society, An Account of Sculptures and Ruins of Mamallapuram by William Chambers.

Will these well-trained enthusiasts go and work at Mamallapuram?

No. They are not going to act as professional guides commercially at the site. However, they may take their friends and relatives on an informed trip to Mallai. They may help in in sensitising students and professionals. We are also planning to help the guides in Mallai with an understanding of true nature of Mallai’s heritage. We have excellent relations with them and they do not see us as competitors. In fact, a few years ago, I trained some of them, supported by TTDC.

What are your ideas to improve the world heritage site of Mamallapuram?

The local people of Mamallapuram should be made to feel proud of their place and legacy. Local Panchayat and Municipality should play an active role in this aspect. They should arrange heritage walks regularly. Merchants and shopkeepers who have occupied the roads should co-operate with the authorities in promoting the site, not just selling their wares. In local schools, teachers should inculcate among the students the spirit of this exceptionally wonderful world heritage centre. Every year, there should be a People’s Mela, wherein village youth can take part in large numbers and express pride in their place. Just imagine sitting near the Shore Temple early morning and witnessing a beautiful sunrise, sipping Kumbakonam degree coffee given in dabara tumbler! These are some of the ideas I would suggest to the Government for an involved participation. Please remember, these sculptures are not repeated anywhere in India!

An exhaustive guide on Mamallapuram has been prepared by Prof. Swaminathan, whose other interest is Carnatic Music; he comes from the lineage of veena virtuoso Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer.

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