Charu Nivedita's Notes from Madras IV

In which the novelist and critic suggests that a lack of respect for the arts and their propagation is killing Tamil culture

By Charu Nivedita

Vidyashankar. Photo: Prabhu Kalidas

In South India, temples have a history of being more than just places of worship. They used to be important generators for a range of artforms, among them music, dance, painting, sculpture and theatre. The action invariably began predawn, at 4am, with the nagaswaram (a trumpetlike instrument native to South India) performance. The daily festivities, which included every other artform, would only come to an end at around midnight.

What place does literature have in all this, you ask? At Shiva temples, the Odhuvaars – members of the families for whom this is an inherited profession – would recite Shaivite poetry such as the Tevaram. At the Vaishnavite temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the singing of the nectarlike 4,000 Divya Prabandham would flow unfettered. Who were the people who transformed temples from a mere prayer spot for the faithful into a buzzing nerve centre for the joyous celebration of arts? 

M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, a singer-actor, was a sensation in the primeval era of Tamil cinema. Now, he is pretty much consigned to the dung heap of history

Today, we cannot identify even one individual responsible for this. The Tamils seem to have a cavalier approach to recording history. Forget ancient or medieval history, the Tamils don’t even have a faint memory of their first celluloid hero, who was very much around a mere 50 years ago. M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, a singer-actor, was a sensation in the primeval era of Tamil cinema. Now, he is pretty much consigned to the dung heap of history. That being the case, how do you suppose we’d care about genius sculptors and artists who plied their trade a millennium or two ago? Nevertheless, the tradition of some of South India’s greatest sculptors lives on.

The Sanskrit term for sculpture and architectural sciences is called Sthapatya Shastra. The Sanskrit root word for this is sthapana, which means the establishment of something animate or inanimate in the firmament. That’s why even today architects in India are referred to as sthapathis. During my visit to the Darasuram temple – a site of unimaginably wondrous architectural genius – in the Chola-empire heartland of Thanjavur, I met Vidyashankar Sthapathi, who belongs to the family of traditional sculptors who can trace their heritage back to the Chola era. I spent a whole day in conversation with him. Although, truth be told, he spoke and I made notes. I could feel it wasn’t just him who was talking to me. There was his pet parakeet, the stray dogs and the birds around the place who I felt were conveying to me the temple’s ancient history. The dogs didn’t merely try to transmit civilisational information; through their unconditional love they signalled the supreme Advaita philosophy of love, and the inner and outer cosmos being one and the same.

The Tamil word for the all-encompassing cosmos is andam. Humans are only a fractal component of the cosmos, just as are earth, fire, forests, mountains, the sky and stars, earthquakes, oceans and megawaves that destroy all comers. In that sense all that our eyes can survey are cousins – near or distant. That’s exactly what I heard the dogs tell me.

Vidyashankar is now seventy-eight years old, clad in saffron veshti and vest. He wears a long, horizontal strip of sacred vermilion on his forehead. His eyes are serene and large, pretty much like those on the sculptures. He sports a flowing white beard. To my eyes he looked like a column of fire.

One thing that stood out in our conversations was the fundamental difference in the Western and South Indian approaches to the art of sculpting. South Indian sculpture is firmly rooted in the tantric mysticism of the land. Someone merely trained in the technique of the craft cannot sculpt the figure of Nataraja, the dancing form of Shiva of the Chidambaram temple. Ergo, a sculptor, or any artist, has to well and truly understand the philosophy of their subject, and the traditions that come with the soil of their homeland. Indian philosophy is braided in its daily life. It is not an esoteric idea that can be grasped by members of the privileged elite. The creators and consumers of South Indian temple art form the evidence.

I have personally witnessed the most poisonous of snakebites being cured by shamans who dealt only in mantras

The Nataraja of Chidambram could not have been the handiwork of an oversexed, boozy artist. Those artisans had to live a life dictated by dharma. I’m just a lay connoisseur of sculpture. I attempt to bring to you the traditional wisdom of Vidyashankar. La Sa Ramamirtham (La Sa Ra) was a towering Tamil writer. Each of his sentences has the powerful lyrical quality of vedic mantras. Even today, in Tamil Nadu, when you get bitten by a snake it is common practice to call hymn-chanters to neuter the poison. The words coming out of the mouth of such healers become the mantras; those mantras become the cure. I have personally witnessed the most poisonous of snakebites being cured by shamans who dealt only in mantras.

La Sa Ra would say: ‘If you write about the fire, it ought to singe the pages it’s printed on.’

As a more enthusiastic reader of literature than creator, I would dearly like to recommend La Sa Ra’s short story ‘Janani’ to you, which I think is one of the finest in the world. But sadly, I cannot for the simple reason that ‘Janani’ never found a worthy English translator. Vidyashankar’s son Ravishankar joined in the conversation. Ravishankar chose to become a medical doctor, shunning the traditional family trade that went back several centuries. Perplexed and distraught in equal measure, I asked him why. “All his life my father has been working with molten lac and bronze to create statues. To melt the bronze and make it as malleable as clay, you can imagine the heat that he would have to deal with. Fire being his constant companion, he himself seems to have turned into a column of fire. Father would get a call for yet another government-sponsored exhibition in Delhi. Without the money to buy new metal, he would melt his painstakingly created old works of art to make something new. I would hollow out my insides crying quietly at this sight. I decided then that I won’t prolong this pain by taking up his profession.”

Ravishankar’s story has parallels in contemporary Tamil literature. Tamil is an ancient and storied language, but today writers who use the language die in penury. This at least can be waved off as destiny, but what’s sad is that the outside world is totally unaware of this because of the fact that we lack good translators.

This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia and was published as an online exclusive to subscribers to the ArtReview Asia newsletter.