Madan is a pleasant young man and he goes by his first name like many of the South Indian guys. He hardly speaks and smiles a lot. When he speaks he does it in Tamil. Madan drives a taxi. And I have a problem. I landed at the Chennai airport with this confidence that I could handle a Tamil situation in a Tamilian’s way. I know a bit of Tamil which I had learnt while watching Tamil movies inspired by the acting of Kamal Haasan and Rajnikaant, a film parallel to the then Ambassdor and Fiat cars. We had this duality during the pre-global days. When we said Tata we added Birla. Hero and villain were too defined characters. Grey shades were absolutely kept out of heroic characters. Despite the Eastman colours, our way of looking at the world was black and white. I could render Tamil dialogues with some kind of verve. And I thought with the changing times my confidence too had increased.
A hot afternoon in Chennai proves things otherwise. I try to speak to the taxi driver in Tamil and what comes out is a language which is mixed with Hindi, Tamil, English and Malayalam. I try my level best to tune my language skills to Tamil and it just does not happen. But business does not need too many languages. Though I find myself at the tower Babel, the driver understands me. He takes me and my family to Cholamandal artists’ village. I meet Madan on the next day. With Madan I could retrieve my lost pride, I think and I try to speak to him in Tamil. The more I try the more Hindi comes out. The more I try to keep Hindi under check the more English comes out. When I smother both these languages to death something does not sound either like Tamil or Malayalam comes out. I smile at myself after each statement that I make. Madan knows my linguistic emergency. He tells me that he could understand Hindi and English, a little bit, he adds. I tell him as an act of saving my face that I also handle Tamil, a little bit. We are on the same boat. We share the same pain and pleasure of strange languages.
(A croc resting in his pond)
Madan’s pleasant smile and friendly nature make me forget the language problem. And the first destination for the day is to the Crocodile Park in Nemmeni fifteen kilometres away from Cholamandal. People, children and grown-ups alike, throng here. They all want to see the crocodiles who in fact do not want to see so many people. But the crocs don’t care. They just sleep on. There are thousands of them in different cages, ponds and pools. Each section belongs to a different species. But I don’t have the patience to see the difference between one species to another. For me they all look alike, ferocious and dormant for the time being. At each fifty meters there are sign boards that tell the people to abstain from throwing stones at the stone like crocs. They may be looking disinterested. But they can fly like birds and make you lose a limb. So instead of throwing stones and sand at the crocs people take their photographs. I also join the ritual by clicking the pictures of my family. Kids are super excited seeing so many crocs at one go.
In one catchment, amongst the hundreds of crocs in different resting postures we chance upon one croc climbing on another. Instantly I realize that they are making love. But most of the people, perhaps even after knowing that it is a very private moment film them in the act as if they were watching a very steamy scene in an x rated movie. One young girl with her parents shoots the act. Mother shares the excitement by saying that one croc is climbing on the other. The father shies away from the scene after giving it a covert glance. I see one young dark complexioned fat woman in her silk saree and jasmine flowers on hair, sheepishly recording it. After a few moments she runs away from the scene giggling. I think of her sharing the pictures she has just taken with her friends secretively.
(A signboard at the croc park)
Here is a very daring act of a few men and women. In a catchment I see two crocs lying along the walls of the pit. Three men and two women are in the same pit, a few feet away from the ferocious reptiles, cleaning the water and pit. People gather around them and for a moment they all forget that they are there to see the crocs. They wonder at the courage of the men and women who are in the pit. In another area there is a signboard saying that to see the most dangerous animal on the earth open the box. There is box erected on a perch. I know that there is a mirror in it. But I share the enthusiasm of the kids and open the panels of it as if I were mortally frightened. There we see our reflections in a mirror. Perhaps, it is predictable for me as I have seen similar experiments. In the United Art Fair 2012, artist Megha Joshi had done an installation. It was a temple made of chappals. Inside the temple at the shrine you could see a mirror reflecting your own image. I had seen a lot of people taking their pictures at Megha Joshi’s shrine. Also I remember Sree Narayana Guru, the illustrious social reformer of 19th c Kerala. He also had enshrined a mirror in the place of an idol. Then I think this installation at the croc park in Nemmeni is a better installation than many that we generally seen in art galleries.
From there Madan takes us to Mahabalipuram. It is Mammallapuram in fact. The Pallava King Narasimhavarman II commissioned the making of these monolithic rock temples in 7th century AD. One could see the craftsmanship and the sculptural understanding of the artists who had carved these temples. There are five of them in one site and are called Five Rathas (Five Chariots). They are also called Pandava Rathas with reference to Mahabharata. Archaeological Survey of India clearly notifies that it does not have anything to do with the Pandavas. But the guides who eke out a living have done the damage by this time. They tell people that these temples are Pandava creations. They point out the enormous rock ball sitting precariously on a rock land and tell people that it was a butter ball kept by young Krishna. None asks when young Krishna came there with a butter ball all the way from Mathura, which in North India. Guides make their own stories in all the archaeological sites.
I remember listening to a story told me by a tourist guide in some rock land in one of my expeditions. He shows me a groove along the rock and tells me that it was the groove created by Bheema who was hauling a chain. None asks him why Bheema was on chain in that particular place. There is a place in Kerala called Chadayamangalam. It is a derivative of Jatayu Mangalam. It was in this place where Jatayu had confronted Ravana who was abducting Sita. Some people show some recessions on rock lands and tell that those are the foot marks of Sita. In Kanyakumari (cape comerin) you see the foot prints of Devi. But they look embossed. How come Devi had such a footstep? Religious belief is something that does not expect logical questions. Sometimes it is always better not to ask questions. The stories told by guides are seriously amusing. Once a guide took me to Fatehpur Sikri and made me to stand in a corner. He made a sound and it echoed. Then he told me that it was how the soldiers communicated with each other when the enemies appeared at a distance. It sounds logical for a moment. Then it is a sham when you think of it. Similarly when you go to Khajuraho, the guides show you where exactly the copulating couples could be found at the outer layer of the temples. I had heard a beautiful story. In Dwapara Yuga, when Bheema was wandering in the forest he found a huge ring. He took it up, raised above his head and then let it go. The ring fell around him without touching his body. Some sage later on told him that it was the finger ring of Sita who had lived in Treta Yuga. When Ravana was abducting her she threw her jewels down. It was her finger ring. Sometimes myths make sense, beautifully. In Kaliyuga we are small people.
(Mrinal explaining a sculpture to Maitreya)
It is always good to have an in-house art historian. It is always convenient. Mrinal knows art history well so she explains the history to my son, who is at that age of understanding history in the form of stories. However, I listen to music of chisels unheard now but heard in a rhythmic pattern for years together in 7th Century AD. I see the devotion of the artists and craftsmen. They used to work in guilds. The first group of carvers carved cave shapes out of rocks. The second group was more skilful than the former. They chiselled the sculptures. The last group was the finest artists. They gave the detailing to the individual figures. It was a glorious moment in time. And their spirits are still around. If you have a pair of eyes you could see.
The shore temple is no longer shore temple. The shore has been pushed out through a strategic fencing. I was here three years back. That time the fencing was not so prominent. Now the shore temple is an isolated island. The Tsunami in 2004 had brought a few sculptural works out from the pit of sea. Now they are kept preserved and conserved. We walk along a narrow pathway leading to the beach. On the one side there is a line of shops that sell trinkets to fried fish, carved stones to figurines and statuettes, hats to chappals. Women and children come behind you pleading to buy some beads and malas. At the beach, I could make out those people who have seen sea before and those who have never seen it. I could make out people from North and South. The first timers revel at the sight of water. They throw away their clothes and jump into water, men and women alike. They outdo the waves in their mirth. Horses move around the beach with their tenders. If you are interested you can have a ride.
On the way back to Cholamandal, we visit, Dakshinchitra, a living museum of craft and architecture from different parts of India. It is a site of culture that has been manufactured with the sole purpose of consuming/selling. Still it has a sort of energy in the reproduction of architectural samples. I take a few photographs and pose for a few. Family try their hands at pottery. The potter with a benevolent smile holds the hands of women and helps them to shape pots out of clay. Bangle sellers and pottery teachers could touch women’s hands without asking for permission, I think. Otherwise one should be a palm reader. I am none of the above so I don’t get a chance to hold the hands of women. But I am happy to hold some hands that have invested their complete faith in me.