Sakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Fork Arts, Kanchipuram
Sakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Fork Arts is a 400 year old ancestral home of the Damal Family, maternal forefathers of renowned scholar Sir. C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. Sakuntala Jagannathan, his granddaughter converted this house into a museum. Furnitures, Antique Dolls, Ancient Palm Leaves, Musical Instruments, Pooja items, Lamps, Stone Sculptures, Paintings, Traditional Dressing & Make-up Cases, Silk, Cotton and Handloom men and women’s wear, Jewellery and Indological Books are on display in this museum.
This heritage house is also called as ‘Brahma Mandiram’ and located in Kanchipuram, near Chennai in Tamilnadu. It is located close to Ekambareswarar Temple. A lot of brass/bronze objects, statues and photos are kept for display, in the hall. It seems the hall was also the venue of daughter’s marriages and chamber concerts during the olden times. There were three wall paintings representing three periods in the history of Kanchipuram, from the ancient (300 BC) till the 20th century.
The open-throughout-the-week museum receives four or five visitors a day on weekdays and 20 during weekends. The entrance fee is Rs. 10. School children, Indian and foreign tourists visit it. South Indian meals are available when booked in advance for groups as also refreshments. The thinnai or front verandah at the entrance has been adapted into a simple and appealing crafts shop. Palm-leaf baskets, herbal beauty aids and terracotta items made by self-help groups are available for sale. So are inexpensively priced booklets that tell you the history of this famous city and also provide details about the house and its exhibits.
When you enter the arched doorway, you come into the Kalyana Koodam. This was the main hall of the house which was used by the men to receive visitors and where functions and marriages were celebrated. A life-size model of an Iyer gentleman in dhoti and angavastram is seated in dignity on the Oonjal (swing) which sways gently from the high rafters. Beside him, the twin mannequin, his wife, decked in a nine-yard sari welcomes visitors with folded hands.
Portraits of four generations of the family adorn the walls. The Deshastha Brahmins from the Narmada valley migrated to Tamil Nadu 600 years ago. In the latter part of the 19th century, the wealthy scion of the landlords of Damal was Conjeevaram Venkatasubba Aiyar whose only daughter Rangammal inherited his assets, including this house as well as another which now functions as the SSKV School. It was from Rangammal, his mother, that C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar inherited a considerable amount of property including "Brahma Mandiram" which later passed on to Sakunthala Jagannathan.
A portion of the wall of the Koodam, when broken down during renovations, revealed traces of beautiful paintings but these could not be restored. Three fresco panels have now taken their place. Executed by Thirugnanam, a well-known artist from Mamallapuram, in pleasing shades of rust, green and blue with aesthetic placement of figures, the panels tell you the history of this ancient town in the most succinct and fascinating fashion.
Nagareshu Kanchi, one of the most famous cities of the country in the past, Kanchi was a vibrant spiritual, cultural and academic centre. The panels trace the story of this city, which owes its name to the Kanchi trees abounding in the area, from 300 B. C. to British times. The city finds mention in ancient Tamil literature. Hiuen Tsang visited it and left behind glowing accounts.
In the cupboards of ""Brahma Mandiram"" are displayed a variety of dolls used during the Kolu by the family. Most of them belong to the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Very British in appearance are the images of the Gopikas holding their wide skirts. The Narasimha looks very English as also the Parasurama and Vishnu on his serpent bed in the ocean. Many of the dolls represent deities that are uncommon in a Kolu display today.
The Panguni Uttiram, the celebration of the marriage of Siva and Parvati, is a central event in the religious calendar of Kanchi. "This house had a major role to play on the celebrations. This tradition continues and the museum is closed during this period (March-April) as Veda Parayanam is held here for a whole fortnight," The Maratha influence is seen in the turbaned musician dolls with their tunics glinting a dull gold. Pondicherry used to make gold painted dolls and models of fruits in the past and quite a few of them can be seen in this collection.
In the adjoining Vadyashala, a number of musical instruments — from the simple ektara to the replica of the ancient yazh — are on view. Images of Ganesha and Hanuman preside over them — Ganesha as he is seen in the temple of Badami bursting into joyous dance while witnessing the Thandava of Nataraja and Hanuman, as he is known to be a great lover of music. Rows of traditional Deepams including the Paavai Vilakku are arranged in an alcove facing which is the puja room. The dining room whose walls were once painted with frescoes now has only a single faded Kalasham flanked by elephants.
The Nadumutram or open courtyard is decorated with stone images that date back to the seventh and eighth centuries. The courtyard has a system whereby the rainwater is led by conduits to the well in the garden, a fine example of rainwater harvesting. The Chekku (mill) for extracting oil points to the fact that Kanchi controlled the oil trade in the region for several centuries.
The Ugranam, the storehouse has a vast array of utensils — in brass, copper and iron. The copper utensils to store water had beneficial properties while the taste of sambar and rasam were enhanced when cooked in lead or soapstone vessels, a practice followed in many Tamil homes even today. There are vessels in this room of all shapes and sizes, which served various functions in the past as also utensils used for conducting rituals and poojas. The kitchen set that could be closed and locked when travelling and the Nellu Kutthu to store the grain are interesting features in the Ugranam.
While climbing the stairs to the first floor, one passes the Machu where grains where stored and into which family members would crawl for a cool nap in summer. In the nearby Vastralayam, family heirlooms are featured — "some of the saris are the oldest in Tamilnadu." Saris from Thanjavur and brocades from Banaras showcase the rich textile heritage. And of course the fantastic weaves of this temple town, an ancient centre of silk and cotton weaving.
Also exhibited are copies of traditional jewellery but the display could be improved. From the room at the top, an image of Goddess Kamakshi looks benignly at the temple town where she is so popular. Anyone expecting a grand mansion, filled with finery, will have their hopes dashed. This house is elegant and shows the comparatively unostentatious lifestyle practised in North Arcot by even the wealthiest proving yet again that affluence and simplicity are an unlikely but a winning combination in the South.
Houses turned into museums are common in the West. But they are a rare phenomenon in this country and the museum shows how heritage and architecture can be preserved with a little care and a great deal of passion for the past.