Does a house have a gender? Can it be feminine or masculine? Can it preserve the past even as it lives in the present? Five years ago, I found the answer to all these questions. The answer is, ‘yes.’ The day was a haze of gold across acres of plantation land in Samathur, a quiet village off Pollachi in Tamil Nadu. And I sat in the back yard of the 6,000 square ft Shenbaga Vilasam, a decisively gender sensitive heritage house where time was in no hurry to tick. There was not a single clock in the house. Or even a calendar.
I can still see the butterfly flitting around the jasmine tree; a tulsi plant flourishing in the centre of the yard.
This space felt like a favourite aunt’s ancestral home. Then I was guided across the home by Shankar Vanavarayar, the heir to this legacy and also to the Vanavarayar clan, which has a lineage dating back more than a thousand years. Shankar had restored the house as the hub of a way of a life that is today almost extinct. A life of strong connections and emotional ties.
The decision to first restore the house and then to turn it into a home stay experience was driven by the desire to share a unique culture. So visitors are sensitised to local history through interactions with cotton weavers and a visit to the family’s 705-year-old temple apart from exposure to local music, arts, crafts and more.
Shankar narrated the story of his grandmother Shrimati Maruthapushpambal who built this house as a retreat. This house was a sanctuary for her and other women relatives who visited her often so there was a sense of privacy about the house even when it was built in 1933. The house greets you with a porch with built in ledges and then with a capacious verandah where you can while away an entire day. The matriarch’s majestic, sepia toned portrait greets visitors at the outset and every room hosts cherished family pictures.
Shankar’s father Krishnaraj Vanavarayar sensed the potential of the property when he decided to spruce it up in 1977. He changed the flooring to the delightfully floral, Chettinad tiles that along with the pillars and the arches today give the house most of its charm. The floor still gleaming like a lush tapestry anchors the house in a warm, earthy colour palette of dull blue, green, grey and terracotta.
As I stood at the entrance door, the eye travelled right through the spine of the house with doors leading to more doors in a straight uninterrupted line, giving tantalising glimpses of the riches within. Grand verandahs began and ended
the journey. The layout was like a well-composed song with transitions and pauses that lead to new stanzas. “The house has these transitions that lead to large spaces to facilitate slow, leisurely exploration. They also helped the women inmates to filter their guests,’’ said Shankar. Most of the priceless antiques in the house came from his collection.
One of the two most dramatic rooms is the living area with an inverted skylight from which sunshine bathes the core of the house. Then there is the rectangular dining area with its high timber roof where a large daybed and two palanquins are part of the decor. As is the luxurious silken stole of a family patriarch which has now been framed.
Shankar’s deep love and respect for his grandmother showed in the way he proudly displayed her works of art — prints of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings which she brought to life with sequins, pleated silken fabrics, little gems and gold and silver braiding.
In keeping with the empowered feminine vibe of the house, all guest rooms are named after matriarchs.
Shankar shared, “My grandmother’s generation was a different breed. They knew that life was long and they were in no hurry. They did things at their own pace. This house is my way of touching base with my legacy, with that kind of life where no one governed your time and space but you. This house radiates a certain peace which cannot be found anywhere else and which everyone instantly connects with when they arrive here.’’
(Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight, editor of unboxedwriters.com and an RJ)