22 generations of terracotta artistry

Terracotta horses, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Terracotta_horses,_Sanskriti_Museum.JPGYesterday our friends Satheesh and Bade sent us to visit V.K. Munusamy, an artist who makes traditional terracotta statues and sculpture, including traditional Tamil village horses and guardians. These statues are a familiar sight to those who have visited rural Tamil villages, and the making of them is a very old tradition. In Munusamy’s family, it’s a tradition that goes back 22 generations.

Munusamy lives in Villianur, about 7 kilometers from Pondicherry. It’s a pleasant village that is also home to a large and interesting Shiva temple, where we stopped for a quick visit along the way.

Munusamy learned the art and craft of terracotta sculpture from his parents from his childhood. Today, he has several workshops and employs a number of local women to execute traditional designs, such as small statues of Ganesha playing musical instruments or dispensing blessings, village horses, Buddha heads, and more. It was fun to watch these craftswomen at work.

Munusamy himself showed us how he crafts small Ganeshas from simple shapes. I was fascinated to see how quickly his skilled hands transformed a few cones of clay into a sweet-faced or mischievous-seeming Ganapati. The video below is pretty brief, because I suddenly ran out of storage on my phone, but it gives you some idea.

Munusamy’s work is well known far beyond Villianur. His workshops export to countries all over the world, and he’s also known for creating the tallest versions of a village horse and temple guardian. He’s also crafted tiny versions of traditional sculptures, just half an inch high. Munusamy explained to us it’s because of the specific minerals in the local clay that he can create sculptures of any size.

Apart from the traditional sculptures, Munusamy has also received commissions for highly realistic sculptures. He showed us the statue his workshop is making now, a likeness of Paul Harris, the founder of Rotary International. I was impressed with the statue’s face; it was highly realistic, so much so that I felt I could see the character of the person, even though Munusamy was working from photos, not from life. You can see the sculpture below. Paul Harris stands between Alan and me on one side, and Munusamy and an MFA student from Bangalore on the other side.

Alan, Aliza, Paul Harris (in clay), MFA student and Munusamy. Photo by V.K. Munusamy.
Alan, Aliza, Paul Harris (in clay), MFA student and Munusamy. Photo by V.K. Munusamy.

Unlike his artisan ancestors, Munusamy is working to spread his knowledge far beyond his family or professional assistants. He’s trained thousands of people, from Tamil villagers to visiting students. The MFA student from Bangalore picture above told us he was studying with Munusamy because his work is so well known. “I am a contemporary sculptor,” he told us. “I try to learn what he does, but I cannot do it like he does. All of us contemporary artists, we know his work and we give him respect.”

The workshop itself was a nice place to visit. The ladies were working in peaceful concentration as we watched Munusamy make Ganapati statues, and talked with him. Several of the ladies had their children with them for the day, and the kids sat near their mothers, studying or snacking. Despite the quiet hum of productive activity, it felt more like the home of a large extended family than a workplace.

As Munusamy finished demonstrating his technique to us, we told him how impressed we were with how he quickly turned a lump of clay into a lovable Ganapati. “I am slow,” he said. “They are the quick ones,” and he gestured to the ladies sitting in a circle around the workshop. “They are the real designers.”

Our new place in Tiruvannamalai

After 10 lovely days in ashram accommodation, we moved today to an apartment we found about a week ago. We’ve arranged to rent it for the month of October, giving us plenty of time to continue what we’ve been doing: taking long walks, meditating at the Sri Ramanashramam, reading at the ashram library, making new friends and spending time at the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary & Rescue Shelter.

First, let me kvell about how nice this apartment is, and share some photos (below). The main room has a huge bed, perfect not only for the usual purposes but also for using a laptop. Right now I’m nicely positioned directly below the ceiling fan, and even with a heat-generating laptop positioned on a cushion across my legs, I’m comfortable. Believe me, this is a triump. Today is pretty warm (about 33°C), and humid with it. We have been taking a lot of baths to stay cool and fresh. Indian baths, that is, with a bucket and a scoop to pour water on yourself. So having found an apartment where we can be comfortable at the hottest time of day is really gratifying.

Besides the bed, the main room has a couple of nice bedside storage cubes, an almirah/wardrobe, and a vanity with a couple drawers and a mirror. There’s also a nice couch, a small coffee table and a television.  The TV won’t get any use, but I’m sure it’s a good one.

Just off the bedroom is a separate little room that’s perfectly sized and shaped for doing yoga. It has an outside window looking towards Annamalai, but the view is somewhat blocked by large, lush trees. This morning, as we were moving in, a little bird hopped onto one of the window bars to look at us. Alan wondered if the prior tenant of this apartment had fed the bird, so I am sure we will try that after we’ve bought some rice or other grains the bird may like.

When you open the front door of the apartment, there’s a tiny entry with a small couch that Alan (and some new ashram friends) find useful for putting on and taking off shoes. Just in front of this couch, two steps down, is a kitchen. It’s well appointed, with a refrigerator, automatic water filter, two-burner gas cooker, electric kettle, microwave, blender and a good selection of pots, plates, knives, eating utensils and so on. We are very well set up for cooking here.  It will be good to make ourselves a cup of tea whenever we like.

In the pictures, note the bedcover and matching pillow covers. We needed a bedcover at the ashram (believe it or not, you do need a light cover at night!), and specially chose this one to go with the room.

One big plus we have immediately noticed: This apartment is really quiet. We loved staying at the ashram, but it’s right by the main road, so you hear traffic all night, plus frequent drumming and recorded music from the Kali temple. This afternoon, there’s a lively cricket game going on behind the apartment building, and with the doors and windows closed, we can barely hear it. As for the main road, it’s really far away, and the road right in front of our building is tiny. Sure, motorbikes go up and down, but since we’re at the back of the building, these don’t disturb us.

How we found the apartment

It was pretty easy: We just wandered around.  When you cross the road in front of the Sri Ramanashramam, and walk down one of the perpendicular streets, you enter a neighborhood filled with various ashrams, houses offering rooms for rent, plus shops and restaurants catering to the many visitors who come to Tiruvannamalai. We just walked until we found a street we liked, and spotted a building that displayed a phone number to call if you wanted to rent an apartment. Which we did.

Practical info

We are staying in one of two guest apartments next to Santosh Castle. There’s also a larger block of flats owned by the same company a bit further down the road, called Santhosh Flats. We looked at these apartments, too, and they have even more amenities: a shared automatic washing machine, free wifi, carpeted floors, bicycles for tenant use, and a beautiful rooftop for lounging. You can make arrangements by visiting www.santoshflats.com or by emailing sharan_se@yahoo.com.