Gateways to excellence
"Travelogue", a programme organised by the Alliance Francaise every month, brings audiences face-to-face with well-known achievers. The first two were historian S. Muthiah and art director Thotta Tharani.
"TO SEEK the timeless way, we must first know the quality without a name (QWAN). To reach the quality without a name, we must then build a living pattern language as a gate. This quality is the most fundamental quality there is in anything. It is a subtle kind of freedom from inner contradictions."
Architect Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless way of Building" is the inspiration for the programme "Travelogue". This series, comprising interactive sessions, is part of a diverse set of activities being organised throughout the year by the Alliance Francaise, Chennai to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organisation.
"Can we find a pattern language that can be applied to our chosen professions and ways of life and increase QWAN in whatever we do," ask the organisers. "The knowledge of, (among others), a social worker's efforts at making a difference, a chef's passion for his recipes, a musician and an artist's explanation of the process, that will inspire us to go beyond just meeting requirements."
"We feel "Travelogue" will show patterns to allow us to make gates for ourselves," said theatre director-actor Pravin and executive Shyam who have helped think up the concept.
To put it simply, "Travelogue" is a programme that helps the audience at the Alliance Francaise interact with well-known achievers in the city every month. And to acquaint themselves with the factors that have led to their success.
"In choosing the speakers, the emphasis has been on rigour, passion, courage, honesty, reliability, repeatability and most important, the will to dream," says Jean Pascal Elbaz, Director, Alliance Francaise, Chennai. Historian S. Muthiah was the speaker for February. He traced the various signposts on his journey as heritage lover and journalist.
For the historian who was born in Sri Lanka, school was a truly formative influence. "As Ceylon was then a Crown colony, the quality of education was comparable to that in England. W.T. Keble from Keble College, Oxford started a prep school, which stressed on all-round knowledge. The students benefited greatly from the emphasis placed on reading.
"I started writing for the school magazine and haven't stopped since," he quipped. It was from Keble, who wrote a book on the history of Ceylon, that he learnt the value of storytelling to grab the attention of readers. After completing his school education, Muthiah went to the U.S. in 1946 to acquire an engineering degree . He developed an interest in the humanities. "In America, the humanities is not ignored as it is here. Half the university population, comprising brilliant students , is into the arts, which is why the country turns out excellent all-rounders," he said. Muthiah wrote articles for the university newspapers ("almost every educational institution has a student newspaper"). When he returned to Ceylon, his articles on his American experience were published. They were very well received and he was hooked on journalism." From 1951 to 1960 when he toured "almost all the 20,000 villages" of Sri Lanka and wrote stories on them, he became interested in heritage. "The old irrigation canals and dams built b the Tamil and Sinhala rulers are such engineering marvels, I was really impressed."
Muthiah moved to Madras in 1968. "I was initially a cartographer. The first feature I wrote was for the Aside magazine. The subject was Madras city and this seemed to strike a chord in people. "Modern India as it is known today had its beginnings in Madras. The first medical and engineering colleges, the first general hospital, the now "terrible" Municipal Corporation ... almost everything in today's India began in this city. "But we have lost all sense of history," he said. He showed slides that demonstrated the deterioration of this once green and beautiful city.
Muthiah, who was presented the Order of the British Empire last year, for his conservation efforts, pointed out how vital it is to revamp our education system so that students learn not just the history of their region but their own locality as well.
The previous month's speaker, art director and painter Thotta Tharani, also provided insights into what makes him a winner. His acute powers of observation help him recreate any setting."I have never swerved from being as realistic as possible." His power of observation is continually on an an alert.
With the constant budgetary constraints, providing "the best of effects in the cheapest possible way" is the principle on which this National award winner works. Ideas come spontaneously to him. "The sets for the film "Bombay" were done from memory; I remembered what I saw for "Nayagan", when I was recreating the Dharavi slum, and completed the sets in 20 days time." For "Indian", an entire township was waved into being by Thotta Tharani's artistic wand.
"Being a painter is quite different from being an art director. But films may help you in your painting and vice versa," he said citing a scene from "Raja Parvai" which was inspired by lithography.
Knowledge about cinematography is important for art direction; one must know how much a 35mm frame can take. "You have to also make compositions, for eg. break the monotony of a wall." He spoke of the art director's role in the Indian film industry vis a vis the West. "An art director in India is half production designer," he pointed out. "But ultimately you have to grasp the director's concept and you have to make provisions for the cameraman. "One should not work just to get an award; I never have," said the Padma Shri awardee. The pattern that emerged in these two lectures is that observation and dedication are what lead to "the subtle freedom from inner contradictions".
The audience was treated to cinematic glimpses of Thotta Tharani's creations. In the third week of March, M.B. Nirmal, founder of Exnora International, will take the floor at the Alliance. Asked about the other speakers to be featured, Elbaz replied, "O.T. Ravindran, Gita Wolf, Dr. Selvapandian, Jean Francois Lesage... We have a few surprises too. Visitors from France to the city, visitors not from France and many more. We would love to have Dr. Kalam. But maybe it is a bit ambitious," he smiles.
Send this article to Friends by