A Passion for Heritage

DakshinaChitra, a living history museum founded by Deborah Thiagarajan in Chennai, preserves and promotes the rich cultural heritage of South India.

By Ranjita Biswas

January 2019

A Passion for Heritage

A few of the traditional houses and contextual exhibitions at DakshinaChitra. To preserve the lived-in heritage, the museum purchases houses from different regions of South India, dismantles them and relocates them to its campus in Chennai. (Photographs courtesy Deborah Thiagarajan (clockwise from above left); by Rajeev Rajagopalan/Courtesy Flickr; by Poochi Venkat, and by Rekha Vijayashankar)

Deborah Thiagarajan grew up in New York, Toronto and Philadelphia. But today, she is firmly rooted in Tamil Nadu, where she moved after her marriage. She is the founder of DakshinaChitra, a cross-cultural living history museum spread across a four-hectare campus in Muttukadu, 25 kilometers south of Chennai. Art, architecture, lifestyles, crafts and performing arts of South India are highlighted in this interesting museum, where curated permanent exhibits and a variety of public programs attract visitors and interns throughout the year.

An important component of DakshinaChitra’s activities is preservation of traditional South Indian houses. Today, many such houses get sold off to make way for modern buildings. This is true of other regions in India as well. In the process, a part of the lived-in heritage disappears forever.

In an effort to preserve traditional houses, with their signature styles and inherent building expertise, DakshinaChitra purchases them from different regions of South India, dismantles them, and then relocates them to its campus. Currently, visitors to DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum can explore 18 such traditional homes and contextual exhibitions, interact with village artisans and witness folk performances.

Excerpts from an interview with Thiagarajan.

Please tell us about how you decided to start DakshinaChitra?
I have studied both anthropology and art history in the United States. I have a Ph.D. in ancient Indian culture and history from the University of Madras. I have always been interested in art, culture, language and how people live.

I worked for three years in villages throughout Tamil Nadu, from 1972 to 1975. I learned a lot and saw the crafts and performances, and how the artisans and performers were becoming dejected. I was employed by the World Bank’s Tamil Nadu Nutrition Project and then CARE, a global humanitarian organization.

How important is it to preserve our lived-in heritage as well as folk arts and traditions?
Our past is linked to the present and our present to the future. We must know our roots and our identity in order to be secure and confident in ourselves in this fast-changing world.

Initially, you had a lot of problems starting your dream project. Do you feel that your patience and belief have paid off?
Patience, perseverance and working as much as possible with the community have definitely paid off. I and my one employee, Devika, and many volunteers brought programs into schools and we did research while we were trying to get land, from 1981 to 1991.

I have had several invitations to put up a DakshinaChitra for other states. I told them I would give all my expertise on how to go about it, but I could not do it myself. The researchers and persons with knowledge from those areas should be in charge.

What do you think is the best way to make children aware of their roots?
The best way would be what was prevalent in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which was to spend every vacation in the grandparents’ rural home. That has changed now. Visiting villages and learning on-the-spot about the people and what they do would give an in-depth experience.

We do what we can and hope they learn. They always enjoy it so, I hope, we have planted seeds of interest. We also have in-depth programs for small groups and different architectural workshops.
Culture is a reflection of the environment. If we care more for our environment, that will certainly reflect in our culture, now and in the future.

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.


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