CHENNAI: When heritage walks and history seminars are held in Madurai, G Sethuraman makes it a point to attend them. His talks during such sessions have been inspiring the younger generation to learn history by comprehending art and its different forms. This retired professor-cum-art historian from Madurai Kamaraj University talks about his journey in exploring art history as a stream of study and its significance in unearthing lesser-known facts.
A native of T Ramanathapuram village near Elumalai in Madurai, Sethuraman’s connect with history goes back to when he decided to pursue an undergraduate degree and PG degree in History. In 1977, he joined the Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU) as a lecturer in the Department of History. He completed his PhD on the Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameswaram, in 1985. “Five years later, when MKU established the Department of Art History, Aesthetics and Fine Arts, I was installed into it as a reader.
In 1997, I became a professor of art history and started exploring its different facets,” he says. Since then, he has travelled across India for academic purposes and out of his own interest to become proficient in understanding archaeological evidence in the form of scriptures, sculptures, drawings, paintings and architecture.
“Art history is nothing but history of art; it can be classified as a sub-stream in both history and archaeology. It involves exploring the visual arts, artefacts and performing arts that are/were existent in a region to gain a better understanding of the social lives of the people who have lived there during different ages. I think art is more significant than written scriptures,” explains Sethuraman.
During his tenure in the Department of Art History in MKU, he helped over 30 people complete their PhDs in different topics relating to art history. He has published at least 70 papers and more than 10 books in the subject including The Facets of Indian Art and Culture in 1995, Socio-cultural and Art History of Tamil Nadu (Tamil) in 1997, History of Performing Arts in Tamil Nadu (Tamil) in 2004 and History of Buddhist Art (Tamil) in 2012. His recent book is The Later Pandyas, Contribution to Art and Culture of South India.
“I have travelled to 25 states in India to learn about several places of historical significance in-depth. These expeditions motivated me to write more. The next two books I am writing are about Azhagarkoil in Madurai and Thirukurungudi near Tirunelveli. Both of these books will be co-authored by V Vedachalam, a well-known archaeologist,” he shares.
Sethuraman also points out how art is always inter-linked with our way of life. “Art has always been a reflection of its contemporary social lives of people. There is a good possibility that a painter or sculptor from the past painted or sculpted things that he/she saw in person. This helps us attain finer information or superior insights about a bygone era.
We can take the example of ‘Kongaani’. It denotes a handmade sheet of dried coconut fibres that is kept overhead by people to protect themselves from rain. There are sculptures of ‘Kongaanis’ in the rock-cut temples of Thirumalapuram near Tirunelveli and few other places that go back to 7th century AD,” he says. The 67-year old says that art history and archaeology need more attention in the state, in mainstream education.
“I think there aren’t even a handful of colleges in the state that provide courses in archaeology or art history. To create more historians or archaeologists, we need to promote such courses. Also, art history is not just confined to art from ancient times or medieval period, it can also teach you about art forms of the 20th century or even now,” he says.