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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

The Story of Evolution of Dakshinachitra Heritage Village

Dakshinachitra (meaning a picture of the south) in Chennai, is a center for the living traditions of art, craft, and architecture of India, highlighting the ethnicity of South India. It is a project of the Madras Craft Foundation (MCF), a non-profit organization.

Dakshinachitra heritage Museum is opened to the public in December 1996. Late Laurie Baker-the renowned architect, provided his services to the foundation. The spatial conceptualization of Dakshinachitra encompasses Laurie Baker’s construction techniques and methods and reinforces his philosophy of empowering masons and craftspeople in the building process.

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Dakshinachitra Architect Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker’s contribution to architecture in India could be said to be two-fold. One is through the buildings he designed and built himself and that is easily measurable. The other is the influence his philosophy, spirit, and personality had on professional architects and on people in other walks of life, who translated his principles of design through their work. Dakshinachitra Chennai Museum is an example of his influence in both these strains. The section “Tamil Nadu” has his direct input. Thereafter, Debbie Thiagarajan, the founder who imbibed Laurie Baker’s design principles has evolved them into a contemporary context into what is now Dakshinachitra. I believe I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to work at Dakshinachitra, in the path that Laurie Baker set, and to be able to continue it in a way that is meaningful to people today and hopefully in the future.

Exterior View Of Activity Centre at Dakshinachitra, Chennai
Activity Centre at Dakshinachitra

The History Of Dakshinachitra

Initially, only five acres of land were available for this project and later the Government of Tamil Nadu allotted another five acres. Debbie Thiagarajan worked hard to persuade Laurie Baker to design the site. Her many phone calls and visits received only apologies from Baker. She and Elias Koshy, the conservation architect from Chennai, who was associated then, wrote to Baker for various clarifications. The archives at Dakshinachitra have the many instructions Baker gave in sketches and writings showing that Baker was finally drawn in. He designed “Guest House 1” and was in touch by giving detailed notes and instructions through the early phases of the Tamil Nadu section, especially the weaver’s house, and the Chettiar house.

Dakshinachitra plans by architect Laurie Baker
One of the initial sketches done by Laurie Baker
Dakshinachitra plans by architect Laurie Baker
One of the initial sketches done by Laurie Baker

Although my association with Madras Craft Foundation and Debbie had started in 1984, which was while I was working with Baker, I became involved with the buildings in Dakshinachitra only in the second half of 1995, with the construction of the three houses in the Kerala section, Calicut house, Puthupally house, and Koothattukulam house. Later on, I designed the main reception centre, the stores, the gallery, the restaurant, guest houses 2 & 3, and the other minor public buildings.

Baker’s Initial Concepts for Dakshinachitra

As can be seen from the sketches here and Baker’s notations, he began the Dakshinachitra master plan as a map, which in execution was set slightly differently.

Dakshinachitra sketches by architect Laurie Baker
Sketch done by Laurie Baker resembling the political map

Baker had great imagination about the open-air museum which was to come up. One could say that his ideas were usually unconventional. He visualized each State as a village with its small streets and walkways. An enchanting quote from his papers reads as follows.

“Another thing – I was trying to do – was because I don’t like the usual exhibition grounds with rows of big artificial or stylized pavilions of transport, fisheries, education, etc. – so I thought that once you go through the gateway into Tamil Nadu, ….. . through streets leading into squares and intersections and back into other lanes, etc. and you just want to go on into the many types of buildings and see-through inside them.”

Dakshinachitra Museum Design

Baker did not want to have grand buildings on the campus. He thought that ‘this place’ should deal with the arts and crafts of ordinary people. He pursued his philosophy of “small is beautiful”. Here is another quote in that tone. “The idea is to abandon the big exhibition pavilion system entirely. For one thing, they can’t be typical or genuine because our forbears didn’t have such things – and for another thing – folk stuff is mainly small. Blow it up and out of size, it is all wrong. These huge hotel foyers with miles of fake plaster with little mirrors stuck in irks me.” Those words came strongly back to me when I designed the main reception centre.

View of Entrance Lobby in Dakshinachitra Chennai
View of Entrance Lobby in Dakshinachitra

Baker had in mind a bold entrance for each State. Here is a humorous way in which he describes his idea.

“I think it is wise to make a prominent and good, attractive ENTRANCE and a comparatively unobtrusive exit – because if ‘in’ and ‘out’ are together on the road façade, there will always be half of the population who will go in thro’ the ‘out’ and the other half who will go in thro’ the ‘in’, but after five minutes will say – let’s get the hell out of here – turn round and go back thro’ the ‘in’.”

This idea was executed in the Kerala and Karnataka sections, which got an entrance each.

The sketch showing a grand entrance to the Dakshinachitra Tamil Nadu House Section.
The sketch showing a grand entrance to the Dakshinachitra Tamil Nadu House Section.

His idea on movement and circulation of people within the complex is best described in his own words:

“I dislike the ‘one way only’ exhibitions – you come especially to see one thing and you have to trail miles around everything else.”

The implementation of his concept is what makes Dakshinachitra Museum different from others. When discussing the textile hall building attached to the weaver’s house, here is Baker’s hilarious comment. “At all Indian exhibitions on textiles, pottery, brassware, fertilizers or food festivals – I pay – go in – and then have to be pushed right through the whole thing like a pig going in at one end of a factory and coming out at the other end as a sausage and a scrubbing brush.”

Laurie Baker had a different idea about Dakshinachitra Food Court. He said,

“Food can also be like the ‘pavilion’ area – personally I think you should get State food – i.e. Tamil specialties in the Tamil section and so on. – Again, you not only get food but should get it in the local place and style and way of eating – you also see the preparation and you should have exhibited in the same area – those lovely coconut scrapers, salt containers, etc.”

Perhaps it was too early to think of a “multiplex” but it was practical to have an a restaurant common to all the four Southern States.

Evolving Dakshinachitra

Laurie Baker did not have fixed ideas. He knew very well that it was impossible to plan everything ahead. “Let the place grow and be seen to be growing.” This is exactly what happened in Dakshinachitra.

One finds that the letters Baker had written to Debbie and the earlier architects were full of practical tips on how to do the construction or how to repair any defects that happened. His advice on having to set the foundation in sandy soils is: “Where and when sand is dry and falls in, moisten first and do a small section at a time – i.e. do not dig out the entire foundation trenches – then later build the walls in – dig a bit, build a bit and repeat.”

To the enquiry whether you need an architect to do the job, Baker’s answer was, “of course you hardly need an architect – better to get village craftspeople to come and build a cottage- then let it out to weavers or metal workers…….& then another group can get on with a temple – and another cottage.”

Terracotta Jalli Detail
Terracotta Jalli at the Dakshinachitra Complex

When one of the engineers was apprehensive about doing a sloping roof, Baker’s quaint reply was, “goodness gracious – is there any shuttering man who can’t put up a sloping piece of shuttering from one end of a room to the other? He should be given a place in the Guinness Book of Records if he’s to be found! I don’t think I’d better embark on the aesthetics department. As you can see – on the front of the Chettinad house – it is obviously absolutely impossible to have a sloping roof adjoining a square tower! Village carpenters and masons have done it for hundreds of years – but we educated moderns can’t do it.”

Deborah Thiagarajan has said that Baker has made her a half architect. She said, “He (Baker) also oversaw the initial construction, helped to solve problems, and tried his best to mould me into a lay architect and engineer (unfortunately with only very moderate success). Architecture, he said, was mostly common sense, so if I looked carefully at the buildings and tried to understand the materials I should be able to solve most of my problems. Dakshinachitra has reams of letters from him trying to explain to me how to solve a problem when I wrote or telephoned him.”

On one occasion Baker wrote to Debbie in his inimitable manner :

“Frankly, Debbie, my insides sink every time you get engineers on to the job. I do know and appreciate the position you’re in and I’m very very sorry I’m not free to up and come and see to things myself! Unfortunately, there’s only one engineer in a hundred who is willing to admit that they have hemmed themselves into a rigid inflexible system – and equally unfortunately most architects have to play the game prescribed by the engineers and contractors.”

In the case of the earlier buildings, such as the Chettiar House, the drawings were made by the architects involved in the early stages and sent to Baker. He would give his comments and suggestions on various aspects. While making his own plans Baker used the metric system. Once when the scale of the drawings was not indicated, Baker admitted, “Either I’m incredibly dense, daft or stupid (or at my tender age, perhaps all three) but I am still unable to use a scale to any drawings that come from you to me! They are lovely drawings and quite explicit and just what I wanted – except that nothing is ever drawn to scale! (or at least drawn to a scale that I am acquainted with!). I don’t know whether I ought to break the news to you all that India has gone metric and is not supposed to know what is an inch, or a rod pole or perch …...”

Baker talked about his illness also with his usual humour. “The family as a whole – 10 of us have been smitten with the flu or viral fever – a glorious mixture of violent colds, throats, coughs, headaches, giddiness, aches, and pains all over - & some of us high fevers. All except our oldest daughter have had it – I was a late taker but can’t shed it. 95% of the antibiotics and such tubes are now no use to me after excessive submersion in them when they extracted parts of my insides a couple of years back.”

One of his apologies for the delay in doing the drawings went like this, “Got your letter yesterday – thanks for it. You must be cursing me like billy-ho! What to do!? I’m just swamped the whole time. More and more interesting and worthwhile jobs – or rather requests for them. Also, more and more things I don’t want to waste my time on but have to spend an enormous amount of effort to shed them.”

Changes To the Original Dakshinachitra Site Plan

The change of circumstances around Dakshinachitra’s location called for some alterations to the original site plan. For example, the entrance has changed from the side road to the main highway on which Dakshinachitra is situated and we have a direct entrance from East Coast Road.

Dakshinachitra Site Plan by Architect Laurie Baker
Original Site Plan for Dakshinachitra

Many of the buildings which were transplanted came much later. The size and the style of the buildings which were purchased were not detailed in the initial site plan. To accommodate these buildings, changes were made to the site plan.

The decisions for changes in the site plan were taken after much thought and a consensus after studying the plan of the building which was being transplanted. Due consideration was also given to the circulation pattern within this building. The changes were incorporated as and when required and many additional facilities not foreseen at the time of making the site plan were added.

Dakshinachitra Sketches by Architect Laurie Baker
Plan and Elevation of the ‘Guest House’ drafted by Baker

The ‘Guest House 1’, which was designed by Baker was never used as per the original concept. His design was to assign the verandah, which was on one side, to become part of the public space, where the craftsmen would demonstrate their craft and alongside sell their products. The rear side was assigned as a more private area for family members. What happened in fact was that these buildings were used as quarters for the staff and the permanent craftsman, Ramu Velar, the potter.

View of Guest House Courtyard using Bricks in Dakshinachitra Chennai
Guest House Courtyard

My Role in Dakshinachitra

When the Dakshinachitra project came up, not only did I shift my residence from Kerala to Chennai, but unlike other projects I had done in Chennai, it is the cause of my continued stay here. When I came into the picture, the construction of the ‘Guest House 1’ was over. Since this building had used various cost-effective techniques, it was decided to continue the same vocabulary for all the public buildings in the future.

I was asked to design the main entrance building cum reception centre of Dakshinachitra. The brief which was given to me was that this should be a contemporary building, but should set an example so that people could understand how the traditional elements could be used in present-day architecture. There was this huge reserve of old stone and timber columns that had been collected earlier and I used these in the design of the new buildings. (There is still some left of this treasure, even after the construction of the restaurant, gallery, craftsmen’s quarters, etc.) The doors as well as the windows had come from buildings in Chennai city, which had been pulled down to pave the way for construction of apartments. I used numerous elements, such as varying heights of roofs, verandahs, courtyards, low windows, and a good overhang, like in many of our traditional buildings, to protect the walls from rain and sun. I kept the scale very low, which is suitable for a museum that is predominantly vernacular and for crafts.

View of the Courtyard
View of the Courtyard

It was about two or three weeks before the Dakshinachitra Museum inauguration. We thought that the restaurant might not be constructed immediately, so we decided to have a teashop which could eventually be replaced by the restaurant. We used the materials left over from the other buildings to make the tea shop, which was finished in about two weeks.

Once the project was inaugurated, we started the construction of the Dakshinachitra exhibition gallery. This was originally meant to be the store, then the ‘Guest House 2 & 3’. Subsequently, the restaurant and the library were added. Now Laurie Baker’s spirit lives on as more buildings such as the potter’s kiln, the administrative building, and the school of traditional design is to come up in the future. And Dakshinachitra heritage museum will continue to evolve as an icon that recites the life, art, architecture, and culture of the Southern Regions Of the Indian Peninsula.


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