Madhusudanan Kalaichelvan on his heritage tour. | Photo credit: VK Srinivasan
A frail old man approached a family entering the Darasuram temple, asking if he could take them on a guided tour to share information about the art and architecture of the temple. The family accepted. As they walked around the place, the man pointing to a sculpture of Saraswathi, called the little boy in the group and asked him to observe the details. His storytelling style kept the boy captivated and the times spent at the temple inspired him to pursue architecture and history when he grew up.
Today, Madhusudanan Kalaichelvan is a historian, epigraphist, heritage enthusiast and conservationist, lecturer and storyteller all rolled into one.
After graduating from Anna University, he joined Ohio State University for further education. An accident brought him back to India, and during his recovery he decided not to return. He became a lecturer, which made him financially independent to pursue his passion, heritage and culture.
“Temples were the only artistic spaces I was introduced to as a child, so I started my journey there. One weekend armed with the book Medieval Chola Temples by SR Balasubramaniam, I went to Chidambaram, this which further strengthened my love for these ancient architectural marvels. Soon these weekend visits became frequent and I realized that the temples were not just places of worship, they were a testimony to our history, to our traditions and our literature. I needed to learn about a lot of things. I read books on bronze sculptures. I also went to art galleries to look at the exhibits and take a bite of them. , which led me to study iconography. I enrolled in a course in epigraphy, which opened my eyes to the vast information available in the inscriptions on the walls of temples,” says Madhusudanan.
Its documentation is based on five important factors. The puranas are the starting point for the etymology of the place, then for the architecture and the different dynasties that added many layers to the spaces. Epigraphy and literature associated with the temple and festivals are also essential to his research.
The desire to share his experiences led him to develop his storytelling skills. What started as a classroom exercise in college moved to the forefront, and he began lecturing on a variety of topics. It reaches a wider audience through webinars and online discussions. It also broadcasts short temple videos.
As part of its RATHAM initiative (Road for Access to Temples, Heritage and Monuments), it offers guided tours of temples and monuments. A deep interest in Carnatic music led him to add music to this experience by involving musicians on these trips.
Another area of his interest is the Vaishnavite tradition of Arayar Sevai. Every year, Madhusudanan would watch these performances in the temples and then draw what he had witnessed. He learned this art form and documents it in book form. His lec-dem on Arayar Sevai won him an award at the Academy of Music in 2017.
He is also a recipient of the Vedhavalli Memorial Prize, the Prof. S. Swaminathan Heritage Prize and the Ilakkiya Chemmal Prize. He is part of the government panel on conservation of temples in Tamil Nadu.
Even as Madhusudanan walks down his chosen path, he still remembers that trip to Darasuram and the man who sparked his interest in history and architecture. “Every time I visit the temple, I light a lamp in his memory,” says Madhusudanan.
The Chennai-based critic writes about art and culture.