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Meet Sthapati – siblings Veezhinathan Acharya and Umapathy Acharya, who want to revive traditional methods of sculpture.

Ask Veezhinathan how many years of training a person needs before he can become a sthapati, and he answers, “2,000 years!” When does the process of learning begin and end in a traditional Viswakarma family, he asks pertinently.

He belongs to a family where no one thought of being anything but a sthapati. His maternal grandfather made the golden horse in Palani, the big chariot of the Sarangapani temple, the Tirupati chariot, the Rishaba vahanam of the Meenakshi temple… The list goes on. His father was an expert in sheet metal work. Even the lullabies in his family are about how the child in the cradle will one day make chariots and build temples for the Gods!

Even when Veezhinathan and his brother Umapathy, also a sthapati, were children, their father would urge them to be observant and curious. When he took them to the Cauvery for their morning bath, he would tell them to look at the swirling water, the coiling vine and the crawling insect, for Nature affords many lessons to a prospective sthapati.

"The brothers are unhappy that Indian art is often seen from a Western perspective. Our art is rooted in the Vedas, and is an offering to God."

Hoysala records

Indian art combines the aesthetic, the intellectual and the spiritual, and therefore a sthapati must have knowledge of calligraphy, astronomy, history, music, prosody, civil engineering, mathematics and many such areas. Ellora is an example of knowledge of light engineering. Know-how of geology and soil engineering is evident in the Brihadeeswara temple. The architect clearly knew what stone to use for the foundation and what to use for the plinth level. That is why sthapatis were revered by kings. An inscription in Pattadakkal refers to the temple architect as a ‘crown jewel’.

“The Hoysalas have left behind the maximum number of records about the Viswakarma community. Temple architects were given the title ‘Oja’ by Hoysala kings. Thus the architect of the Basavanna temple in Halebid was known as Demoja ,” says Umapathy.

“Even women in our community had knowledge of Sanskrit, During invasions, it was the women who saved ancient texts from beings lost, by making copies of the pal, leaf manuscripts,” says Umapathy. The family’s legacy includes many palm leaf manuscripts of the silpa sastras and the Yajur Veda. These manuscripts are more than 600 years old, and are in excellent condition.

Grains of measurement

Veezhinathan describes the measurement system used in the past. A grain of rice was used as the unit of measurement, The rice had to be of the red samba variety, and the grains must have been harvested 140 days from the date of sowing. If the grains were arranged with their sides touching, it would take eight grains to make an inch. If they were placed lengthwise, with their tips touching, it would take four grains to make an inch. Twenty four, 26, 28 or 36 angulas made a foot. The reason for the variation was because the size of the grains varied from region to region.

For the Brihadeeswara temple, the scale was 24 angulas for a foot, with eight grains in each angula. This was called the Thanjavur mozham. The Chindambaram mozham and Tiruvannamalai mozham had 25 angulas. In North India, wheat grains were used instead of rice.

Veezhinathan explains that according to the tala system of measurement, there are many divisions in an icon from head to toe. If it is a Vishnu or Shiva icon, threre are 124 divisions. This is called uthama dasa tala. For an icon of the goddess, there would be 120 divisions, this being the madhyama dasa tala. For other deities, it was 116 divisions. There are more than 200 measurements for any idol.

Once during a training programme for Walmart executives, Umapathy spoke on quality management in Hindu architecture. “Perfection is inbuilt in out art,” he says. “And nothing but perfection will result if the rules laid down in the Silpa Sastra are followed.”

Does this mean no innovations are possible? “It is possible to introduce innovations, but within the Sastraic framework,” clarifies Umapathy. In the past, when an innovation was planned, permission from the elders of the community had to be sought. A veto from them meant the plan had to be dropped.

The first English book on Indian art was written by Ramraz, a clerk at the Thanjavur Collector’s office. He found that even Sanskrit pundits could not interpret some of the technical terms pertaining to Indian architecture and sculpting, So he sough the help of a sthapati to write his book, which was published in 1826. “That’s why our father insisted we learn English, so that we could write and speak about our inheritance, and translate the ancient texts ourselves,” says Veezhinathan.

Although both the brothers have college degrees, they spent eight years learning the Silpa Sastras from their father. Many of their relatives and frients told them not to take up the family tradition, but the brothers and their father were adamant. Are they happy with their decision? “Yes,” they say without hesitation.

Veezhinathan has made silver kavachamas for the Navagrahas at the Mukteswara temple, and also gold kavachams for the Rajarajeswari temple, both in Mumbai. He, like his father, Acharya N.Panchapakesan, is an expert in sheet metal work. Veezhinathan and Umapathy won the Tamil Nadu Government’s Best Artist Award for their sheet metal work.

Umapathy was given the Sharda Prasad award by the Crafts Council of India. He, along with Dr.Apte of pune, translated the Silpa Vidya Rahasyopanishad, and is now colloaborating with Dr.Apte to translate the 10th century work “Samarangana Sutradhara’ by Raja Bhoj.

Tell Veezhinathan you want a sculpture of a deity, and in five minutes, the sketch is ready. He just marks a few dots on a piece of paper, and develop the outline.

The two brothers are trying to revive traditional methods of drawing the use of tools, and age-old rules of iconometry.

Research, his passion

Acharya N. Panchapakesan, father of Veezhinathan and Umapathy, was a research scholar. He studied in depth the relationship between the Vedas and architecture. He came to the conclusion that the use of grains as a unit of measurement could have had its origin in the Vedic concept of Dyava-Prithivi, that is, Heaven and Earth as a parent pair. He brought about innovations in traditional teaching methods. He taught students the difference in approach between the artists of the West and those of India regarding the representation of human anatomy in art.

Memorable visit

Fifteen students from ITT Bombay were in Kumbakonam recently, to study the art and architecture of the area. They attended a lecture by Umapathy on temple architecture. Lakshmi Deshpande and Ruchin, who are doing their Masters in Design, said, “These days, design is often limited to computer generated ones. This visit has opened our eyes to a whole new world. And so has the lecture.” Ruchin is planning to bring out a heritage kit based on his experiences during the trip.

Madras. 19/10/1995
Dear Brother Sri. Umapathy,
It is very good of you to attend along with your brother for the First National Seminar on Viswakarma Sahitya Academy held at Udupi on 15th instant accepting our invitation. Your speech in the academy was thought provoking and thereby you proved beyond doubt that you are the son of illustrious scholarly father. My congratulations.

The secretary,
Akhila Bharata Sahitya academy, Madras.