An understanding

An understanding

Epigraphy is a quaint skill to encounter, not something you would expect from the average doctor, lawyer or chartered accountant. And yet, on a rare day, you just might encounter such professionals poring over intriguing inscriptions in obscure temples in the interior villages of Tamil Nadu, meticulously taking estampage copies or prints of the stone inscriptions, using the paper-and-ink technique. Well, one can spend a lifetime discovering and recovering our ancient heritage, and find that one has still covered minuscule ground only. Or, one can inspire a few others and achieve a multifold more.

Such is the dynamism of Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan, a practising architect, academic, epigraphist, temple connoisseur, litterateur, mridangam player, Carnatic vocalist, historian and above all, a dynamic young man who is inspiring scores of urbanites to reconnect with their roots - be it temple inscriptions, music compositions or ancient literature.

"Epigraphy is challenging, but a lot easier when approached in reverse," he begins. So it is that Madhusudhanan takes his students down a learning path from 18th century backwards.

Reading backwards

The epigraphic learning curve with him might go like this - from the 18th-century Tamil inscriptions found in Chennai's Sri Parthasarathy temple to the 16th-and-17th-century Nayak and Vijayanagara inscriptions of Tirupathi temples, to the 13th-century Pandya inscriptions, the 10th, 11th and 12th-century inscriptions of the imperial Cholas, the 6th and 7th-century Pallava inscriptions and further down, Tamil Brahmi inscriptions that span to 3rd century BCE… This architect learnt epigraphy from retired epigraphist Ramachandran. But epigraphy is just one of his passions. A graduate from School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University, Chennai and a gold medalist in  his Master's programme in architecture, Madhusudhanan trained himself in conservation too. He has been involved in the restoration of the Raja Raja Gopuram of Thanjavur Big Temple, an archaeological site excavation in Kattuputhur near Namakkal, and the documentation of many temples belonging to various architectural styles.

He also executed a report for the Heritage Restoration Documentation Yojana on Kanchipuram temples, documenting around 350 buildings, sites and monuments in and around Kanchipuram.

From architecture to temple architecture to epigraphy, temple art, ancient history and literature… it's been a meandering journey. Or is it? "For me, it is about understanding a concept holistically, all its nuances and all its layers," explains Madhusudhanan. That's how he has been working with musicians like Bharat Sundar and Sunil Gargyan, staging thematic presentations centred on temple towns, or compositions on ancient temples. This does help demystify Carnatic music, bring it closer to music lovers and, beyond its artistic scope, let rasikas connect with the thoughts and lives of the savant musicians whose compositions only get to be heard otherwise. Documentation of rare temples happens in the process, something that has been neglected so far. It is tedious work. "I begin by reading up on the temple, then visiting the temple, study the inscriptions there, its architecture, learn the local folklore on the temple from the priest and the locals in the vicinity."

In the process, he has been uncovering fascinating snippets of unrecorded history. He chanced upon at the Saraswathi Mahal library an unusual commentary on the Muthuswami Dikshitar composition dedicated to the deity of Kuzhikarai Shiva temple in Thiruvarur district, a brilliant chaturdasa ragamalika composition rendered in 14 different ragas, starting with the ancient Shree raga.

Visiting Kuzhikarai, he found that the Kuzhikarai Shiva Temple, a late Nayak-era Shiva temple, was located in a hamlet that had just seven houses. "Chatting with the people there, I learnt from local tradition that Dikshitar had actually spent some 48 days in this village, praying to this Shiva deity with the Padiri flower, a flower that is still grown in the temple's nandavanam (grove). Apparently, he had had some ailment, which had been cured by worshipping at this temple."

It was in the year 2013 that Madhusudhanan started RATHAM (Road Access to Temples, Heritage And Monuments). RATHAM takes its participants on a unique temple tour, usually centred on the lesser-known temples; one that takes in not just spirituality, but also history, art and architecture.

Madhusudhananan and the group stay there for a couple of days and imbibe the musical compositions associated with the temple, the food, the festivals and the other aspects associated with the temple. "For those who are interested in this, I suggest that they document the temples of their own native villages. This way, a lot of ground can be covered."

"Our ancient temples were not just places of worship. They are a record of our history, our traditions, our heritage and our culture, thanks to the extensive inscriptions they hold. Our temples have to come alive," he says.

Our history has so many missing links and this young man believes that much of it can be uncovered by studying our temples. As he points out, even a hundred years back, the Tanjore Marathas were thought to have built the Tanjore big temple, until an English epigraphist discovered from the temple inscriptions that it was actually built by the Cholas.

Likewise, he quotes the historical mentions of Saint Ramanujar, whose 1,000th birthday was celebrated last year, in a 12th-century inscription he read at the Srirangam Ranganathar Temple. The inscription speaks of a sect of people who called themselves 'Ramanujar adiyargal' (devotees of Ramanujar).

Meanwhile, recently, along with his friends, he discovered a rare 10th-century (approximately) inscription on Parantaka Chozhan, the grandfather of Raja Raja Chozhan, in a Thiruvanaikaval temple. "The stone bearing the inscription was being used as a door jam in that temple," he rues.

Passion rekindled

His passion for temple art eventually led him to learn the Araiyar Sevai - the exotic dance-music-literary devotional art form of Vaishnavite temples. While still in Anna University, he would go year after year to the Srirangam temple to watch the Araiyar Sevai,  performed during the month of Marghazhi. He has also studied the Srivilliputhur and Alwarthirunagari styles of this art.

"It took me four-and-a-half years to get close to and understand the format. I would visit the Srirangam temple every Marghazhi month and watch the two-and-a-half-hour-long Araiyar Sevai, and come out and sketch their movements from memory, pen and paper not being allowed inside. It is an enigmatic format encompassing swara, laya, bhava, taalam and shabda; even bharatanatyam is less taxing compared with this intense, one-on-one conversation with God, focusing on a bronze idol 15 feet away, for two-and-a-half intense hours. Imagine the mental focus, the physical endurance, and the multiple skills it requires. And the  araiyars perform this sevai without any remuneration or recognition. It's a miracle that this art survives," he states. One of Madhusudhanan's endeavours is to find patrons to support these araiyars.

The latest from this multifaceted man are podcasts that demystify devotional literature and bring out its many nuances. "For instance, saint-poetess Andal's Nachiar Thirumozhi work is amazingly modern, and remember she composed it in the 7th and 8th centuries. We shouldn't keep her locked within temples," he adds.

And the journey continues...

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