softstone carving as subversion: an unlikely rebellion in the south of india.
“Learning is always rebellion… Every bit of new truth discovered is revolutionary to what was believed before.”
–Margaret Lee Runbeck
On a rainy Saturday morning outside Chennai, Tamil Nadu–India’s southernmost state–huge groups of students were arriving at DakshinaChitra. But one bus brought nine young women there for a different reason than a simple school excursion: an all-day workshop on softstone carving. Their tenth classmate for the day was me.
When I first heard about DakshinaChitra–which literally means “a picture of the south” in Tamil–I knew I had to visit. Established in 1996 by the Madras Craft Foundation, it’s a kind of open-air living arts museum that has recreated village scenes from four states in particular: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Scattered across its leafy, ten-acre complex and central crafts bazaar is a collection of both original and replica buildings: old granaries from Kerala, weavers’ houses from Karnataka and AP, and a variety of old Tamil houses–including those belonging to potters, merchants, and agriculturists.
Our day began in the Activity Hall, though, where our group was first introduced to Mr. Tirupathi, an expert stone carver who works at DakshinaChitra. From the Salem district in Tamil, stonecarving is the family business–something he shares with both his father and grandfather. While they normally work in marble, we would be using softstone, which is pliable and much easier to chip and shape. “It is a very comfortable medium,” he said to us. I only hoped he was right.
After passing around small, square inch pieces of stone, he distributed a file to each of us. When I picked it up, I was surprised at how heavy it was–both ends had been sharpened to the point of a knife, and the middle was a bit rounder, all the better to grip it with.
The stone itself was cool to the touch, smooth and slightly dusty just like a powdered donut. We drew an outline first, scratching out the shape of our design. “Then chip away the extra,” Mr. Tirupathi advised, which of course, is so much easier said than done.
For a while, we all worked in silence, myself humming “just keep chipping” to the tune of Dory’s famous line in Finding Nemo. The air smelled of rain and dust, and the pitter-patter of the afternoon shower contrasted with our files ricocheting off the table as we worked.
At lunch over warm dosas and biryanis, I got to know a few of my classmates. Bianca, a graphic designer and part-time wedding photographer from Chennai. Deepti, a fiber artist who’s just finished a three-year MFA in Textile Art from the University of Massachusetts. And Anitha, who had brought a box of her own earrings and coasters to show the crafts bazaar in hopes of selling her work there.
I told them how unusual it was to meet artists in India, people involved in creative professions other than the usual medical, engineering or business industries. At least the path I’ve been taking through the country hasn’t put me in touch with many, and what I’ve perhaps missed these last few months is the chance to “talk shop.”
“Well, I have a degree in HR, but I am more interested in handicrafts,” Anitha explained. “My parents are not accepting it. When people ask them, ‘What does your daughter do?’ they say HR. They never say handicrafts.”
“Yes,” another woman named Maya said, who works in IT and only started designing jewelery six months ago. “You can’t be sitting at home and working. You have to step out of the house. You’re looked down on if you’re just sitting at home, especially if you’re well-educated.”
The more we talked, the more the day began to take on a different tone. While for me, the workshop was little more than a one-off chance to learn a local craft, for these other girls–who have passions they aren’t always allowed to pursue by their culture–it was something a bit more.
While I was happy to sit quietly and work on my carvings, the other girls were busy swapping advice on how to get their work in local exhibitions, where to find the best beads in Chennai’s Parrys Market, and how much commission gallery and shop owners should be allowed to charge.
Suddenly there was an edge to the day that I definitely hadn’t expected. Because as much as I’ve loved India, these past ten days inside the home of an Indian family have showed me a different side to the culture. One that isn’t all sparkly bangles and chili paneer.
It’s a side where arranged marriages are still the order of the day, where parents and children don’t always see eye-to-eye, and family expectations can weigh heavily on the shoulders of the next generation. For the first time, I’ve felt my own way of seeing the world rub against theirs. It doesn’t seem fair that while I’m allowed to pursue a career as nebulous and open-ended as travel writing [and all the travel writers said, 'Amen!'], the girls I met have to use HR or IT jobs as a front as they try to make it as handicraft artists.
Just like those pieces of stone we worked with all day, there are some things I wish I could just chip away from the culture so that a different shape can emerge. But when it comes to shaping India, the file isn’t in my hand.
Have you ever felt your own culture or way of seeing the world push against the limits of another?
coming to Tamil Nadu soon?
If you are and you’re interested in visiting DakshinaChitra yourself, the village is located at:
East Coast Road
Chennai 603 118
Tel: (+91) 044 – 27472603
Check out their website, www.dakshinachitra.net, for an events schedule of when and what workshops are currently running. They offer everything from astronomy and paper jewelery to various local dance styles such as Thappattam and Oyilattam.