A stroll in the (reassembled) countryside

India lives in its villages, so people say, though the headfirst rush towards urban centres of recent decades has been uprooting the rural landscape. An ongoing migration to cities continues to cut many people off from village life, negatively impacting local cultures of crafts, festivals, music and folklore. In reaction to this phenomenon of market-guided mobility, boutique villages have sprung up in many of India's cities. But a more unique effort at encouraging an appreciation of the rural has borne fruit just 21 kilometres from Madras, on the road to the first millennium CE port town of Mahabalipuram. The Dakshinachitra museum has charged itself with the duty of celebrating south India's diverse village housing styles.

In most cases, the museum 'exhibits', which may date as far back as the 17th century, have been dissembled from their original locations and reassembled inside the museum's grounds. The museum's curators have collected a representative array of houses from across the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu to showcase the varying houses that for centuries characterised south Indian villages, many of which are now being subsumed beneath a bland modernity.

On visiting Dakshinachitra, one is struck by the range of artefacts on display, each encapsulating an aspect of traditional life. Amidst the transplanted homes of artisans, farmers and merchants, one can stop for a chat with the village craftsmen employed at the museum, or spend an afternoon trying to match steps to the tunes of folk musicians. The craftsmen are a foil for the unique structures in which they work by offering lessons in many forgotten village trades, making the museum a living dynamic unit.

On my visit to Dakshinachitra on a crisp, sunny afternoon, I first passed through the small crafts bazaar. On the edge of the marketplace, a lady at a Tamil Chettiar (merchant) house greeted me with the traditional "vannakam". The century-old teak woodwork and floors of the house came to the museum, beam by beam, slat by slat. The house once accommodated four generations of a merchant family, with each room around the centre courtyard the property of a son, patriarchal lineage determining housing arrangements. The house demonstrates dual histories, of a family and a building style, each complementing the other in their common presentation at Dakshinachitra.

Behind the Chettiar house, a row of smaller dwellings fills out the Tamil Nadu section. The specimens include a silk weaver's house from Kanchipuram, an entire Brahmin agraharam, or enclave, an agriculturist's house from Thanjavur, and an early 20th century potter's residence from Tiruvellore. In the Kanchipuram house, predictably, weavers work at traditional looms to produce 'Kanjivaram' saris, while in the neighbouring buildings craftsmen offer visitors lessons in traditional practices. Artisans teach the craft of basket weaving, the art of glassware, and my wife received a tutorial in pottery. A shrine to Ayyanar, a guardian deity of villages, an exhibition hall for textiles from various time periods and a shed housing a temple chariot complete the Tamil Nadu offering.

In the Kerala section, the second to be assembled by the museum, the central attraction is an all-wooden Syrian Christian house from Podapally, Kottayam, built in the 1850s. The layout of the house is typical, with a granary attached to the entrance hall, unlike in most Hindu households. Christian icons in the granary suggest that it may have served a dual purpose as a place of worship. At Dakshinachitra, another Syrian Christian home, this one dating from 1910, has been attached to the larger structure. The second house includes a living room, a separate dining room and kitchen, evidence of British influence on construction styles. The distinctive materials that went into the two buildings are jade fruit and plata wood [will ask TM what these are].

Next to the Syrian Christian homes is a Nair family homestead. The Nairs are a south Kerala matrilineal Hindu caste, and in this example of a middle-class agriculturalist dwelling, the kitchen is separate from the main house. A carved wooden ceiling indicates craftsmanship of the highest quality. Another Hindu home, a Menon house from Calicut, is constructed of laterite and timber, and is representative of many 19th century middle-class houses in central and northern Kerala.

The Tamil Nadu and Kerala sections opened in 1996, after which it took more than four years for the sections on Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to come up. Today, these remain small, each represented by only one cluster of homes. The Karnataka section contains a Likal [word not found by google] (weaver) home, and the Telugu Ikat weaving community is represented in the Andhra section. The construction of both houses is similar, primarily relying on roughly finished large rocks. In the Karnataka home, a large workroom extends off the entrance, with tools spread around the floor and benches. The living area, behind the workroom, is small but tidy. In the Andhra house, the living and working spaces are similar in size and across one another off the entrance. The residential quarters can be approached from a separate entrance, and include a terrace overlooking a courtyard.

Dakshinachitra exposes the visitor to the scale of India's diversity – not just at the national or regional levels, but also within villages. Houses of craftsmen, agriculturists and merchants may share space along a rural road, but they differ from one another in design and functionality. Housing evolved such as to match perfectly the occupation of the residents. At first the differences appear small or inconsequential, but when viewed within the context of everyday activity, with artisans or merchants at work inside them, one can see how small variations reflect the various needs of occupants.

A final consideration on housing styles concerns the relationship between houses and their physical environments. In Kerala, boats are often kept inside residences dotting the state's backwaters, while the construction of Tamil houses reflects the climatic conditions of altitude, proximity to open water and ecology. In the 10 acres of Dakshinachitra, the museum captures the spirit of a much larger territory, demonstrating the balance of society and nature.

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Himal Southasian