Friday, November 16, 2007

Chettinad house

Chettinad is a region in Southern Tamil Nadu that is known for its mansions belonging to the Nattukotai Chettiars, a banking community who had businesses in South east Asia and brought in teak from Burma to build a housetype that came to be known as the Chettinad house.

At a recent seminar at Anna University (Chennai) alongwith Ecole de Chaillot (Paris) in collaboration with UNESCO and ArcHe-S, discussions were held on the conservation and management of the Chettinad heritage.

Mr.M.A.Siddique, who had been Collector of the Sivaganga district until recently pointed out that the main challenges at Chettinad are that the owners of these houses, the Nagarthars have deserted their homes and settled in Chennai or abroad, resulting in the lack of maintenance; the houses are under joint ownership and family disputes have led to further neglect; there is a flourishing antiquity market at Karaikudi which entices the local people to sell the burma teak elements from within the house, that gradually depletes what is left and most importantly, there is a need for the Chettiar community to come forward and make conservation of this architectural heritage possible.

While we focus our time and effort on conserving the buildings, we need to also conserve the processes that have made these buildings possible. We need to find out who are the ARTISANS who did the lime plaster work, who laid an oxide flooring or attangudi tile floor and who made the columns and brackets in wood. Are these skills available and in what measure? How do the artisans source work in a changing urban-oriented culture? Can we link these artisans to potential conservation and tourism-related projects, so that they have a continuous flow of work and a reason to encourage their children to carry forward the tradition. Here is a link to an 'Artisans Resource guide' that is being developed by a community of people concerned about heritage. It hopes to link architects and houseowners to traditional artisans. India still has a large number of such artisans in the many towns and villages all over the country.

In Chennai, the IT parks compete in architectural style with what the west has to offer. However, the people still aspire to have houses that belong to tradition. In Chennai, the architect is increasingly being asked "Can you build me a Chettinad house?" Is this fashion? Is this a trend? Why are people today keen on building a house in Chettinad style? and what do they mean? Do they want a Chettinad mansion with all its grandeur? Do they want a conventional, modern house with only Chettinad columns and the Attangudi tiles? And, what do architects think of when clients say "chettinad house"? Recreating a chettinad house in chennai. Is it possible? What does it need? The more people that begin to want houses that hold an indian identity, the greater will be the effort the architectural community will make towards developing a contemporary vernacular language.

In the historical Chettinad region - in Karaikudi and Kanadukathan, the streets lined with mansions are deserted, the houses in neglect. In metropolitan Chennai, people aspire to build a chettinad "vernacular" house on an urban landscape dotted with concrete multi-storeyed apartment buildings and in the Madurai region, amongst the local people, Art is a way of life.