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Dakshinachitra – A Rare Museum

Dakshinachitra is a rare museum. Traditional houses of various communities of South India have been transported brick by brick and reconstructed at this ‘heritage centre’ on the coast off Chennai.

Propelled by the energy to save at least a glimpse of South India’s rich culture, Deborah Thyagarajan and a few of her associates at the Madras Craft Foundation conceived the idea of a Heritage Centre in 1990. Locating authentic samples of architecture, arts and crafts from the four South Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka proved an uphill task till the day Dakshinachitra opened to the public in late 1996. Designer architect, Lawrie Baker, chose to leave the undulating windswept landscape as it was and then began the process of reconstructing the prototypes of South Indian architecture.

“It takes us 3 years just to locate an authentic house in interior South India”, says Deborah who has personally chosen every one of the houses at the centre. And once a house is located and bought (for anything between Rs. 50000 for the simple mud houses, to Rs. 15 lakh for the Chettinad Merchant’s house with ornate doors and woodwork) a bevy of architecture students, carpenters and workers set about measuring, photographing and carefully dismantling the house. “In the timber house from Kerala every beam was numbered and accurate drawings made”, explains architect Benny Kuriakose. The dismantled house is then transported (often in 50 to 60 lorry loads) to Dakshinachitra. Says Deborah “Reconstruction of the prototype often costs as much as three times the original value of the house.” Because most times at least 30% of the timber has to be replaced and traditional craftsmen and workmen stay on location for months during the reconstruction.

But then, Dakshinachitra is as much about these craftsmen as it is about their creations. Watching them has been a rewarding experience as Kuriakose says, “It is very encouraging to see youngsters who are knowledgeable and interested in traditional craftsmanship and building skills like lime stucco plastering or procession stacking of potiles for roofing even if they are not commercially very relevant today”. And when the builders had a problem matching the grooves of a timber house, one of the carpenters checked with his father who recited a Sanskrit sloka that states the rule! Also at the centre are two young boys from a nearby village who work on lathes to create softstone utensils – Kalchattis – which were in vogue hundreds of years ago. They, along with the potter, the weaver, the glass blower and others ensure a steady flow of orders from customers through Dakshinachitra’s craft shop which is in itself a mini museum of the varied arts and crafts of South India. “We started the craft shop with a capital of Rs. 45000”, says Gita Ram, who has been associated with the project since its inception, “Last year the craft shop itself registered a turnover of Rs. 10 lakh.”

Relaxing at Dakshinachitra’s amphitheatre, watching rural folk artistes perform one realizes that these “interactive” programmes are the Centre’s pulse. Visitors to the Centre are treated to workshops by crafts persons in basket weaving, pottery, leather puppetry and glass blowing apart from traditional fold theatre performances and festive celebrations like Onam, Navaratri and Diwali. And for the hundreds of children from the nearby urban and rural schools who also attend these workshops in the ambience of 19th century settings “It is a peep into our rich cultural heritage”. As Visalakshi Ramaswamy says, “We would be successful if these children understand the aesthetic value – systems and grace of our heritage.” But, as always, all this requires finance. And Deborah Thyagarajan’s top priority today is to set up a corpus of 4 crore to finance these projects. While the Tamil Nadu Government has given the land on a 33 year lease, the Ford Foundation sponsors the cultural events, and the Development Commissioner of handicrafts has given them a 40% grant. Between 1990-1998 Dakshinachitra has managed to raise Rs. 2 crore in personal and corporate donations. Most of the artifacts on display are from Deoborah’s personal collection and other collections like the Lockwoods collection of 350 articles. And as such the centre is only 50% complete with work still to begin on the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka sections. But Deborah is optimistic “It will all be achieved even if gradually”, she says. “Dakshinachitra hopes to bring in more visitors to facilitate a cultural interaction. On the anvil are plans for a business course for craftsmen, to teach them to make their skills more economically viable”. And Deborah would love to see Dakshinachitra eventually move towards being a Design Centre.

But this is all into the future. For now, as architect Kuriakose describes is, “Dakshinachitra is a museum where the buildings and artifacts are the exhibits”. A repository of the elegance of life that once was.


Dakshinachitra is a 30 minute drive out of Chennai on the East Coast Road. While public buses ply the route, using private transport will save you a fair walk from the bus stand to the Centre.

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