Taj hotel offers guests in Chennai an unusual tour of homes pulsating with art heritage.

A chair made with dentures, a grand metal Shiva mukhalinga, a stunning canvas of lotuses that seem to lift out of the water, a meeting with artist N. Ramachandran in his studio, a walk through a small weaving centre and a massive embroidery atelier... These are a tiny taste of what’s on offer for guests staying at the Taj Coromandel in Chennai beginning this October.

‘Captivating Chennai with Taj Coromandel’ is a series of private tours designed by Apparao Galleries exclusively for the Taj, and especially suited to those who have a little time and not much idea of what to do. Here’s a chance to get a unique and unusual glimpse into the art and culture side of the city. For a price, of course.

The tours take visitors into people’s homes — an extraordinary thing in itself, for who would allow strangers into their private spaces simply to ‘stop and stare’? Clearly, some do, thanks to the level of trust the gallery has managed to engender, says its events manager Shreya Singh.

A group of us set out, over two days, to get a sense of what was on the cards. The first stop was the home of writer and art connoisseur Nirmala Lakshman, whose unselfconscious garden seemed to walk right into her home to play with her small but superb collection of paintings in the mellow afternoon light. Two little ones pattering about among Jahangir Sabavala, S.H. Raza, J. Swaminathan, Senaka Senanayake, and Harshavardhan, to name some, reminded us how exclusive the opportunity was.

“This collection decorates the home,” Shreya, our guide for the day, told us as we piled into the cars. “Now we are going to what I think is Chennai’s best-kept secret — to the home of someone whose collection is about decorating the self.”

Shreya was not wrong. Stone pillars and elephants and other sculptures lie around Lily Vijayaraghavan’s casual garden. Wooden details from chariots adorn the walls. Here stands a Lakshmi with red stones, there a Ganesha. This isn’t just a home, it’s a home museum.

Inspired by her grandfather, S.T. Srinivasagopalachari, Lily has been collecting, passionately, for over 40 years. She’s there to greet us and take us around from room to room filled with artefacts, downstairs and upstairs, her chamber, kitchen, all the time sharing her stories. “Do you know, I got many of these items from scrap heaps,” she tells us as we follow her, astounded by the size and variety that’s on display at every turn and on every wall. “I am particularly interested in objects of daily use, and sringara,” she says. “The women of 100–200 years ago were not pattikadus, bumpkins. They were highly sophisticated. That’s what you understand when you see the things they used.” And she shows us cupboards full of delicately sculpted metal foot-scrubbers, carved ivory combs, attar buttons and scissors, glass-less mirrors, silver kajal holders, and so much more. “Most of the sringara items were collected from the North,” she points out. “The women there were more beauty-conscious, I think, the women of the South not so much.”

These are just a small part of the collection. There are Thanjavur paintings, Mysore paintings, Kerala glass paintings, sculptures, stuccos, kitchen vessels, a huge prabhavali... the list is endless, and un-catalogued.

“Aunty, you were modern even in the way you collected!” exclaims Shreya as she stands before the sculpture of an amorous lesbian couple. “Yes, we can see how people in those days were more progressive than us,” says Lily.

As darkness falls, we arrive at the home of gallerist Sharan Apparao. Shreya has already warned us that this is going to be different.

Different it certainly is, as we are blasted into the experiential world of contemporary design. Here too, Sharan is on hand to show us a series of P.G. Dinesh paintings, drapes around herself a stainless steel dupatta showing interlocked hands created by Puneet Kaushik, share her wonder about the Lajja Gowri stance of the kinnara women sculptures from Karnataka, tell us how the Gulam Sheikh she has had been exchanged by him for a poem by Amannath... It’s a highly charged and tactile world. She even has a Thomas Heatherwick chair that looks like something J.K. Rowling might have imagined to throw off people until you sit in it and never want to get off.

Imagine having the chance to visit all these homes and see so much! And it’s not over yet because there was also a visit to the weaving and printing unit at Kalakshetra where the experienced Prabhakar shows us how deftly he draws on cloth with a 6B pencil. And a row of women at a table equally deftly paint over the designs with their kalams, pens — kalamkari. In the background is the clatter of the looms weaving greens, blues, oranges, and maroons into brilliant stoles and saris.

It’s a small operation here, intimate in a way, focused on specific styles and techniques, a place to which people come from all over the world. In stark contrast is Vastralaya, the large, super-efficient atelier of Jean-Francois LeSage housed in an old, art deco home. Its walls still display photographs of the original owners of the building. Here, a team of embroiderers and designers create exquisite pieces for high-profile clients all over the world. They are trained and can reproduce any kind of embroidery work from anywhere in the world.

“But when we made something for Rashtrapati Bhavan, because President Pratibha Patil wanted something special, everybody felt very involved because it was something they could relate to,” points out Supriya, who shows us around.

When we visit, some embroiderers are working on napkins, others on a series of shoe uppers. Supriya and her team show us samples of Swarowski pearl-bedecked powder room curtains, scarves for Hérmès, zardosi and aari and very much more. Interestingly, though, in both places, the weavers and embroiderers seemed to suggest that they would not want their children to carry on their craft.

The glimpses into captivating Chennai have been thrilling but exhausting, so we look forward to the Southern Spice experience. It’s nice without the bharatanatyam in the background, and, of course, the service is splendid if slow — for the fine dining experience, we are told. Rasam is kept piping hot on the table in a neat contraption with a candle flame beneath, and the items keep coming from the four southern States. There’s enough and more to bite into.

Which takes us back to the chair with dentures — and teeth and a hole in the middle.

“How to sit on it?” asked Sharmishtha, completely bewildered.

“You don’t,” replied Sharan. “It’s a sculpture.”

“And it will bite!” I said, as we all burst into laughter.

It’s a real, live experience alright, and fun.

Culture-hopping in the bharatanatyam capital

It’s a platter of seven tours showcasing the private art and heritage life of a city not exactly dancing on the tourism map of India, despite it being known as the bharatanatyam capital of India. There’s The Collector’s Eye (seeing private collections in homes), The Classic Route (visit to Dakshinchitra, Kalakshetra, a private collector’s home, and craft store), Warp and Weft (visit to the Kalakshetra printing and weaving centre, and Jean-Francois LeSage’s embroidery atelier Vastralaya), Old Madras (Mylapore in detail and shopping around the tank), Bronze Tour (visit to the Madras Museum with historian and archaeologist Chitra Madhavan), Modern Madras (seeing contemporary art and meeting a well-known practising artist), and Personal Shopper (shopping out or shopping in, where the shop comes to the guest’s room!).

The rates range from Rs 4,000 a person for half-a-day/ Rs 6,000 for a full day; Rs 6,000/ Rs 8,000 for couples; Rs 16,000/ Rs 22,500 for a group of eight. The fee covers transfers to and from venues, entry fees, guide fees, and a South Indian thali meal at Taj’s Southern Spice restaurant.

(This article was published on October 3, 2013)
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