CHENNAI: Keep your belongings safe and head to the nearest police personnel, if you notice someone or something suspicious,” blares a voice from one of the speakers set up in Kapaleeswarar Sannidhi Street. As hordes of devotees and curious spectators throng the temple perimeter to catch a glimpse of the ‘Utsava murthi’, as part of the Temple’s Mylapore Brahmotsavam/Panguni Uthiram festival, sounds of traditional instruments and chants of ‘Kapali’ canopy us.

Literally, pushing our way through the crowd, we walk towards South Mada Street via Ponnambala Vathiyar Street – a bylane buzzing with activity – bangle and trinket stalls occupy most of the space and the famous snack hub, Jannal Kadai, has customers swarming its entrance. Containing our temptation to buy some bhajjis there, we quickly make our way to our destination, an otherwise choultry that comes to life during the 10-day temple festival — The ‘Bommai Chatram’ or doll house.
The edifice is over 165 years old. A colourful pandal houses several dolls painted on wooden sheets. “Vyasarpadi Vinayakam Mudaliar, a carpenter, built this place. He then became a contractor in the Nawab’s court. He began collecting rare dolls and paintings wherever he travelled and those are on display here,” shares city-based historian Nivedita Louis.

Vinayaka Mudaliar was a man of unwavering faith in Hinduism and a devoted philanthropist. The former is quite evident as we enter the building. The stone pillars are gilded with gold paint and a plethora of clay dolls of Gods and Goddesses are on display. “The Chatram was inaugurated in 1851 and the tradition of displaying dolls has continued ever since. Even Tamil scholar Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai who visited the Chatram is said to have composed 100 verses on the building and its founder,” says Nivedita.

The unassuming building, also houses rare paintings and handcrafted dolls from Mudaliar’s private collection, that are of historical significance. About six original Lithographic prints from Ravi Varma Press, a collection of paintings showcasing Krishna Leela, Yama Dhandanai, Chidambara Rahasiyam, Raja Swati Tirunal, a life-size doll of Geethopadesam and teakwood paintings of several emperors, are on display inside the 2,000 sq.ft hall. Most of them are over 150 years old.

Every year, labourers from Thiruvallur also set up the exhibition. “My father was also doing this and now, I continue the same. Since they are of great value, it needs to be handled with care,” smiles a 50-something Lakshmi Narayanan, as he oversees the exhibition.

As we walk around the room, we cannot ignore but notice how some old dolls have been touched up with a fresh coat of paint. “I have been seeing this tradition of Annadhanam, and the choultry turning into an art gallery during these 10 days for the last 60 years. I remember seeing some of these dolls in a rustic condition. Now, they look brand new! But that’s okay…with so many things changing around us, it’s heartwarming and I am thankful that at least such traditions are being kept up,” adds Rajaraman Mahalingam, a septuagenarian.

Traditions followed

According to Mudaliar’s will, the choultry also used to give Annadhanam on Dwadasi. The Annadhanam is administered by the trust. He also decreed that camphor should be lit and waved before Lord Kapali, whenever he came out in procession.

Check out Bommai Chatram at South Mada Street, Mylapore. It will be open till 10 pm today

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