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This Incredible Artwork Is Giving Ancient Tamil Proverbs a New Look

The work is based on the amalgamation of the oral tradition and visual culture, metaphors, material culture and symbols of Tamil Nadu.

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Letterforms have played an indispensable role in lending languages a tangible form as we have come to know today.

Carried down through centuries and millennia, it is indeed the time-tested accounts penned down by historians that have helped preserve much of the world history, except those annals that were passed down orally and became lost with the passage of time.

In a country as diverse India, one can’t ascertain the number of languages and dialects that have been spoken by communities since the dawn of civilisation.

Ancient Tamil insciption on the temple walls of Thanjavur Brihadeeshwarar temple. Source: Wikimedia.

While ancient scripts like Brahmi and Kharosthi now only remain charted in historical archives, most of the present day scripts roughly centre around Devanagari, Gurmukhi, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu and Sindhi.

Intrigued by the ancient letterform of Tamil script and the oral tradition of vernacular proverbs, one art student in Bengaluru has pieced together an artwork that is bound to amaze you with its ingenious concept of integrating reimagined letterforms and timeless proverbs under a single canvas.

Inaipu, which means fusion in Tamil, is a pre-thesis project by Sneha Suresh, who is a final year student at Bengaluru-based Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, a private design school.

Bringing together the oral tradition of proverbs and letterforms under one canvas. Courtesy: Sneha Suresh.

The printmaking project was conceptualised to visually represent the metamorphosis of the oral tradition of Tamil proverbs in form of evolved letterforms through a more imaginative manner.

“The project is based on the amalgamation of the oral tradition and visual culture, metaphors, material culture and symbols of Tamil Nadu. I’ve tried to bring out the real and the imagined mentioned in the oral tradition of proverbs through visuals,” says Sneha to The Better India.

To explain her work more elaborately, Sneha had chosen single or double letterforms for each proverb that have been refashioned to portray the saying in the best possible manner.

Yaanai chattiyilum kuzhiyilum oondoo. Courtesy: Sneha Suresh.

Take, for instance, the proverb, “Yaanai chattiyilum kuzhiyilum oondoo,” which means, when an elephant gets lost, you must also look for it in the unlikeliest of places, even a pot.

“Here, I’ve used two letterforms, one that looks like a pot and the other that looks like an elephant’s face. At one point, the letterforms have been combined to depict the elephant hiding inside a pot,” Sneha explains.

Some of other renditions are as follows:

Idli thirupaadhe!

This image shows a screenprint based on a Tamil proverb that says you can flip a dosa but not an idli, so don’t distort the truth. Using the letterform [i] of the Tamil, which has been distorted and flipped, the image appears to resemble a man sitting with his legs cross-legged and perhaps weaving stories around himself and distorting the truth.

Choru kanda logam swaraga loagam

The proverb means he will settle wherever he finds rice (food). Sneha has used the letterform [i] and the rice grains are derived from the counterspace of another letterform.

Ennai kudathai suttrum, erambu pola

The proverb means like ants accumulating around a pot of oil (oil playing the metaphor for money and greed. A part of the letterform [ku] will be visible if one squints a little. The image shows the top view of a pot and ants around it.
The theme assigned for the pre-thesis project centred on the vernacular and Sneha couldn’t have had a better opportunity to tap into her heritage and culture. A fascinating aspect is that Sneha could never learn to read or write Tamil, having lived the entirety of her life in Goa.

“It is something that I’ve always regretted but now, as a visual artist and a visual communication design student, my interest in letterforms has spurred enough for the project to have become a pathway for me to get close to my cultural roots,” she explains.

So, how did a person with no formal knowledge of a language as intricate as Tamil, decipher complex proverbs and seamlessly incorporate it into her work?

Sneha’s grandmothers, Jayalaxmi Mahadevan (left) and Parvathi Natarajan; Sneha with her mom, Rajani. Courtesy: Sneha Suresh.

“The story couldn’t get any less interesting. Growing up in an unlikely household where both of my grandmothers live together, every instance elicited an incidental proverb that went on to take root in my psyche and subsequently in my project. As of translation, my mother, Rajani Suresh took a significant measure out of her busy work life to help me out,” she fondly recalls.

The vivid splash of colours used in the project finds heavy inspiration from the iconic temple architecture and vibrant costume culture of Tamil Nadu, following extensive research by Sneha.

“From the exquisite gopurams (gatehouse tower) of temples to intricate motifs in a Kanchipuram saree, every visible motif and colour palette that embodies the Tamil cultural heritage has invariably found its way into Inaipu,” she states.

Inaipu isn’t the only work of art that you can give the young woman credit for.

Sneha with her work.

During her first year at Srishti, Sneha showcased her entrepreneurial skills by launching Tucksac, an online store that offers you ethnic roll-up stationery pouches, bags, customised laptop sleeves and slings.

Involving techniques such as screen printing and dyeing that she had learnt in college along with branding and packaging, Sneha set out to design sustainably ethical accessories with fabrics and avoids the use of plastic and leather.

Now that she has begun discovering the facets and nuances of the Tamil letterform, Sneha intends to take Inaipu much further and for the pure love of the language and art, aims to foray deeper into the vernacular realm and various letterforms.

She also plans on learning the language, which by now should be lesser of a task, given the amount of time that she has spent studying each letterform and associating it with corresponding sounds. “This time I really intend to learn it,” she laughs.

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Written by Lekshmi Priya S

Shuttling between existentialist views and Grey's Anatomy, Lekshmi has an insanely disturbing habit of binge reading. An ardent lover of animals and plants, she also specializes in cracking terribly sad jokes.