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Chennai photographer documents journey exploring Chettinad culture

The area, which was home to the prosperous banking and business community Nattukottai Chettiars, is a treasure trove of architectural wonders.

Chennai photographer documents journey exploring Chettinad culture
Amar Ramesh

By Yardhini Devaraj

CHENNAI: In 2010, Chennai-based photographer Amar Ramesh visited the Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu for the first time. The area, which was home to the prosperous banking and business community Nattukottai Chettiars, is a treasure trove of architectural wonders.

Amar was fascinated by the facades of fabulous mansions brimming with colours, iconography and imagery. The entrance to these houses is called ‘mogappu’ in Tamil. The beauty of these entrances is that they are unique, and reflect ideas, ideals, and positions that owners hold in the social hierarchy.

Mogappu signifies the portal or a grand entrance into the Nagarathar homes of Chettinad. In vibrant tones of greens, yellows and blues, these facades are striking in their grandeur. Wanting to capture the beauty of the townscape and architectural wonders, Amar and his team photographed 108 pictures and compiled them in his book Mogappu: The Portals of Chettinad.

Speaking to DT Next Amar says, “I was attracted to these facades owing to their aesthetics, diverse style, and symmetry. These mogappus invite you to wonder, ‘Who lived here?’. These entrances offer an insight into the world of the Nagarathar community. Even from a distance, you wonder about the art, architects and artisans of the time who created these marvels.”

For over 10 years, Amar traversed the 80 odd villages and captured hundreds of images, which include portrayals of Chettinad culture and architecture. Ranging over 10 feet, these facades were built in symmetry with the first floor of the houses (using the same pattern, texture and colour) so that from a distance the effect is arresting.

Amar adds, “Some owners were pious, while others used these spaces to please their British counterparts. But all of them were heavily adorned and today resemble works of art.”

The images in his book are fascinating in their details; mythical beasts come alive in some, while decorative trellises are the highlights in others. MK Gandhi makes an appearance, as do the winged characters from Indian epics, showcasing the length and breadth of the imagination behind these facades.

Architecturally, they are significant, as the artisans and art forms no longer exist. These ornamental and embellished works show the importance of art in the community, where every element of the design has been woven into the cultural ethos of the region.

With these heritage homes being demolished to build newer structures, Amar’s work takes on paramount significance. “Over the past decade, the mansions have slowly been disappearing and taking with them the stories from our past. This is an attempt to document our past and preserve it for the future,” he states.

Talking about his efforts in preserving the culture and art of these communities, he says, “To this day, I have been working on several portraits and will continue documenting this beautiful work of art.”

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