The newly opened Virtual Retail (VR) mall located in the up-market neighbourhood of Anna Nagar, stands different from most malls in Chennai. Its unique building design incorporates features of ancient south Indian architecture. Starting from its entrance, the walls, paintings and sculptures are aesthetically designed to present our rich art, culture and history with a view to educate future generations.
On 5 May 2019, VR Chennai launched “Kathai-Kalai-Parampariyam walks”, tracing the rich heritage of south India by way of "stories, art and heritage". “We hope that the Kathai-Kalai-Parampariyam walks will engage and amaze city residents and tourists alike, and take them on a journey that connects them with the rich, albeit sometimes forgotten, heritage of this bustling, modern metropolis,” says Siddharth Yog, founder and chairman of VR. The objective is to make Chennaites and tourists aware of the art and culture of south India.
The kathai walk on day one was ably conducted by historian Sriram V who explained all the tales of the Dasavataram in a crisp manner within 45 minutes. The 10 manifestations of Lord Vishnu have been beautifully portrayed at 10 different places in the mall in various forms like sculptures, paintings, carvings and lights. The participants of the walk were provided with a receiver and a guide. The walk started from the entrance of the mall where Sriram launched his narration with the help of a mike and receivers.
Matsya, the first avatar, was represented as a three-feet long catfish, laser-cut out of a metal sheet and located in The Tamarai Sadukkam — a small pond-like structure located at the entrance. After narrating the tale of this particular avatar and explaining other traditional designs in the mall such as the structure of the gopuram, the temple tank and the mahadeepam, the participants were escorted to the place where two huge beautiful paintings depicting the churning of the ocean of milk (paarkadal) were mounted on opposite walls. One depicted the devas or gods holding one side of Vasuki the snake while the opposite wall was full of the asuras or demons. The story of Kurma, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, was narrated here. The lights on the ceiling near the paintings was of an aesthetic design with three colours — green, blue and gold to depict the poison, water and nectar. The Kurma avatar or tortoise, carved out of green stone, was placed along a water stream.
Varaha, the third incarnation, was in the form of a water fountain at the side of the mall, while Narasimha was depicted in a hand painted mural on the ceiling. Its location being “neither inside nor outside” in keeping with the reference to the tale, was captivating. The stunning mural depicts the scene of Narasimha pulling out the entrails of Hiranyakasipu. The Vamana avatar is represented in a 15-feet mural on the outside wall of the mall, capturing the moment when King Mahabali offers his head for the Lord to place His foot. A mural on another outer wall shows Parasurama, the next avatar, being blessed by Varuna, the god of water, as he sits in meditation in Gokarna.
The avatars of Lord Rama and Krishna are in the form of hand carved wall art, the design inspired by the Ramaswamy temple in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. The last two avatars of Buddha and Kalki are located in a separate building with a quiet and peaceful ambience.
There is a seated sculpture of the Buddha in his form of 'amoga siddhi'; and then, we come
across an interpretation of the Kalki avatar designed with brilliant lights. There was a 300 kg “uloga bell” with all the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu carved on it, placed on the side entrance of the mall — it was a delightful sight!
All the sculptures, paintings and carvings are by local artists. In order to encourage and nurture indigenous art and craft, VR is collaborating with local artists and guilds like Kalarings Art studio, Cholamandal Artists’ village, Klove studio, Satish Gupta and Sri Sankara Silpa Sala.
By including architectural references to temples in the form of questions and answers, talking about their history and quoting examples from literature such as Tiruvaimozhi, Nachiyar Tirumozhi, Silappadhikaram, and Geeta Govindam, Sriram kept the entire session alive and going.
Overall, the walk was both educative and entertaining. It concluded with a short music concert by students of Bombay Jayashri, followed by refreshments. With the increasing influence of pop culture in India, especially in places like malls and movie theatres, such initiatives to remind us of our roots, must be appreciated.