Open-air museum to honour people who shaped Tamil Nadu and its culture

Senior sculptor G Chandrasekaran has chosen Tirunelveli to set up “Guruvanam”, which will have 600 busts of reformers, scholars and activists

G Chandrasekaran with his art work.

An open museum with 600 busts of reformers, scholars and activists who contributed to enrichment of social and cultural lives of Tamils is not a simple idea to execute. However, sculptor G Chandrasekaran, fondly called Chandru, has been working relentlessly, giving shape to his dream project since the first lockdown in 2020.

Chandru, the former principal of Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, plans to install each bust under a palm tree – the state tree of Tamil Nadu.

See video: Guruvanam museum

Called “Guruvanam”, the open museum is spread on 4.5 acres of land, along the Thamirabarani river in Ambasamudram (Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu).

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The original plan for the project was laid in coordination with the Tirunelveli district administration, but since it got cancelled, Chandru decided to take it up on his own with help from his students and friends. But it was his wife, Muthulakshmy, who encouraged him to go ahead with his pet project.

What was the selection criteria for busts?

The selection of personalities for busts was based on three criterion. First, those who were born and lived in Tamil Nadu and contributed to its cultural uplift. For example, poet Subramania Bharati and writer Pudumaipithan. Second, those who were born in another country and contributed to the development of Tamil Nadu. The third category, however, is meant for foreigners like Pennycuick and Alexander Rea, who contributed to the development of the state – directly or indirectly.

Chandru has finished making busts of 34 prominent personalities, including Vilathikulam Samigal (musician), Abraham Pandithar (musicologist), Ki Rajnarayan (writer), MS Subbulakshmi (musician), Nammalvar (organic guru), Umarupulavar (poet), John Pennycuick (architect of Mullaperiyar dam), Alexander Rea (British archaeologist who unearthed sarcophagus from Pallavaram) and John Marshall (who excavated Harappa and Mohenjo-daro — two main cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation).

“The open museum is a medium to document the contributions of great leaders who shaped Tamil Nadu. There will be an information board on each bust, explaining the works of that leader. The selection is not only restricted to Tamilians, but expanded to foreigners like Pennycuick, who did their bit for Tamil Nadu and its people,” says Chandru, who had also sculpted the statues of Mahatma Gandhi (located at High Court in Ahmedabad and Madurai bench of the Madras High court), B R Ambedkar (at High Court, Chennai) and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Tirunelveli). In 2019, Chandru made the bust of Iravatham Mahadevan (1930-2018) out of his admiration for the veteran epigraphist.

Chandrasekaran aka Chandru says he could not have taken up this project without support from his wife Muthulakshmy.

The busts will be a little over the life-sized ones, made in fiber-casting. “The busts are a little bigger than the life-sized ones. I am looking at the proportion and balance. I have made a layout for the installation of all busts,” he said.

Why install busts under palm trees?

A year ago, Chandru planted palm saplings and other trees. Being the state tree of Tamil Nadu, palm trees are a part of the cultural lives of Tamils. “Palm trees are rooted in our culture and civilization. Our epics speak a lot about it. Unfortunately, the palm trees are widely abandoned today since the ban imposed on toddy tapping in the state. I want to reintroduce palm trees in the cultural space of Tamils by installing the busts of these great people beneath the palm trees in ‘Guruvanam’,” says Chandru.

The central idea behind ‘Guruvanam’

The sculptor is not new to executing such big ideas. In 2018, a group of 26 students from various art colleges in Tamil Nadu, under the guidance of Chandru, gave shape to more than 300 busts of erstwhile leaders and activists at a workshop held at CSI Higher Secondary School for the Deaf at Santhome, Chennai. Besides those of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and B R Ambedkar, the team made busts of anti-caste activist and Siddha practitioner C Iyothee Thass, scheduled caste activist Rettamalai Srinivasan, activist Immanual Sekaran, social and political activists Appadurai, M C Rajah and LC Gurusamy among others.

The idea of “Guruvanam” is to create awareness among people about those who contributed to Tamil culture, keeping nature and trees as the central theme. “We may be able to finish making the busts early, but it takes some time for the palm trees to grow. It’s a long journey and I have just started,” says Chandru.

“Guruvanam” open museum project is first of its kind in India. “I am not able to set up a camp due to COVID-19, which is my only worry. My students and friends have agreed to help me in this venture. We will resume work soon,” he says.

A full-fledged open park will not take shape overnight. “It needs years of hard work and dedication,” says Chandru. “It takes time and you can see the fruits of our hard work after at least five or six years. We have just started it and I hope it will develop into a big cultural centre in the coming years,” the sculptor said.

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