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Contemporary Identity of Chettinad Houses in Tamilnadu

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This proposal examines the production of visually striking/brilliant palatial houses built by the chettiars during the colonial era between 1860 and 1930 as a result of industrial capitalism. I primarily look upon the elaborately painted ornamental houses that bureaucrats as a statement of social achievement, by using the method from history and ethnography. In addition the present day transformation of those now-abandoned homes into web of tourism is also viewed. I argue that the empty mansions are being fleetly confiscated into new gadgets of visual intake via global tourism, thereby remodeling into public spaces. Through the heritage tourism, the geospatial data of the community are recreated. In this article I discuss the architecture of adorned hybrid mansions to illustrate three considerations.

First, why chettiars have felt the necessity to make an identity for themselves architecturally and visually through the event of hybrid vernacular domestic design. This domestic design in the modern India maybe a fascinating analysis although only less scholars have studied on the aspects of transformation of these dwellings. My Second concern is to look at the associations of nativity with relation to the migration. The critical question that rises to me is that why chettiar the migrant merchants built elaborated mansions when they are not living in it? Why did they contribute so much wealth to construct these buildings? The above sentence delineates the bhakti centered regional community with certain acknowledgement of hybrid modernity of the British era. However it is to be noted that the royal symbol of their community is present only in their ancestral mansions, which sort of shows the unique characteristics of chettinadu. Finally the spectacular mansions as a result become sites that evoke memories of homeland and ancestors which are visually instantiated by the paintings on the walls. The discussion of ’memory-places’ in the work of Pierre Nora (1996) helps me to identify the historical relationship between chettiars in an era of colonial capitalism and the production of one type of visual gadgets.

My concern here is how with visual narratives as representative of history, memory, migration can support to recreate the past for the future. The Chettiars left the country for their business in order to attain huge wealth as moneylenders and came back with materials from different places to build elaborate mansions as an identity of their social status in the native land. Far from being in decline, as Huizinga (1994) would have it, “the visual is a vital part of contemporary India and becomes remodeled at crucial social time”. The will be understood, I argue, by a selected moment of historical transformation in colonial era that lead to the assembly of those ancestral homes as a sort of visual object. I also want to add that although the chettiars boast their legitimacy of economic and social status through visual aesthetics, they also expressed their devotional sentiments openly with adaptation to bhakti devotionalism. ‘By creating ancestral houses for ancestors who never lived in them’, chettiars want to acquire their native rights in their soil to display their reputation among the British colonials. The construction of these houses marked an instant control of the capitalist categories in India. Observers ranging from colonial administrator and ethnographer Thurston (1909) to anthropologist Yuko Nishimura (1998) have commented “that the ornate Chettiar mansions were their entry point in gaining interest in and familiarity with the community”. The Chettiar houses are typically found in the towns of the region. The houses are generally two to three storey height with high rise compound wall, having gateway embedded with ornate, statues and carvings, giving the feel of economic and class supremacy. I also want to add that chettiar designed courtyards for their houses marking the entry to modernism by visually stating the Equality of Design to all.

This is the antapura, the women’s quarters, the innermost precinct of the house (figure 4). The identification and of public and private areas in the house, created a system of using space for business, religious, and family functions. Infact many chettinad families have sold their houses due to the crisis that happened between 1930 and 1960 which highlighted the community’s overall economic decline. Many chettiars shifted to abroad for income and business leading to the abandoned mansions. The commodification of new hybrid houses lead to the visual view of contemporary India with older values and memories. Nowadays these houses are frequently used for shooting films and for documenting the art and architecture. The analysis of visual practices surrounding the chettinad mansions give the perspective of how chettiar’s saw themselves among the society with the representation of both class and religion. The construction of these palatial houses among business communities can be marked as a sign of the confidence the chettiars had in the gradual transfer of economic and symbolic power from royal patrons to migrant capitalists who engaged in global capitalism. The transformation of the houses into gadgets of visual objects of tourist interest further extends the importance of local-global relationships in the production of history and social memory. Also the architectural form sort of romanticizes the chettiar clan to become internationally recognized.

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Contemporary Identity Of Chettinad Houses In Tamilnadu. (2019, August 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from
“Contemporary Identity Of Chettinad Houses In Tamilnadu.” GradesFixer, 27 Aug. 2019,
Contemporary Identity Of Chettinad Houses In Tamilnadu. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 Oct. 2021].
Contemporary Identity Of Chettinad Houses In Tamilnadu [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Aug 27 [cited 2021 Oct 20]. Available from:
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