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Curiosity: Chettinad's connection with The Straits

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Vyshnavi Doss | 1 Comment


No, that isn't a picture of a Chettinad mansion, but it just might be a close relative.

I spent Saturday afternoon looking at Karaikudi architecture on the internet. Chettinad vignettes have found their way into my consciousness quite incidentally: through the mainstream of cinema, grand wedding halls, homes of affluent family-friends and restaurants. I haven't actually visited the heritage towns of Karaikudi. My most intimate interaction with the Chettiar legacy has, interestingly, been here in Singapore: through the streets named after them, temples they built, the restaurants they started and the Thaipusam festivals they championed.

{ Perspectives of an enthusiast, not an expert. I'd like to hear from you if you have something to add or clarify. Leave a comment! }

There are some fascinating stories on the internet about the community if you so wish to read (a few links at the end of this post). The Nattukkottai Chettiars were the venture capitalists of their time; they sailed to trading hubs in Southeast Asia and Africa and established themselves as trusted financiers with a structured money lending practice.  They were a wealthy, progressive lot, with a fondness for risk taking that extended to design and decor.

Chettiars in Singapore conducted their business on Chulia Street and Market Street, in shop houses which combined European and vernacular architecture. Source

While browsing pictures of the mansions, I instantly recognized the ceramic tiles. And you would too, if you’ve ever visited Singapore, Malacca, Penang or KL.

 Periya Veedu in Chettinad with Majolica art nouveau tiles and European style floor tiles Source

They're known as Peranakan tiles in parts of Southeast Asia, but they’re actually Majolica art nouveau tiles from Europe (there were varieties imported from Japan too). The Peranakans – another fascinating community born of immigrant-local marriages and transformative cultural cross-pollination – espoused them in this part of the world.

 Shop house on Petain Road with Majolica art nouveau tiles, Singapore

Their shop houses are a playful composite of European and vernacular styles. Full length windows co-exist with local wood carving; the stucco features local themes; and European floor and wall tiles and pilasters populate the basic vernacular construction. There are several variants of shop house ornamentation, making it nearly impossible to present a single one that typifies the style.

 Straits Eclectic Style with ornate stucco, Lorong Bachok, Singapore Source

The Chettinad mansions follow a similar syncretism it seems: with eye-popping colours, stained glass and heavy stucco ornamentation, possibly emulating the Straits Eclectic style of Southeast Asia. 

 Inner hall of Periya Veedu with paintings, ceramic tiles and stucco Source

Art nouveau railings stand alongside local style balustrades; and some bungalows use both European and Athangudi floor tiles.

 Eye-popping colours and art nouveau inspired balustrades seen in the courtyard of the Chettinad Mansion Source

Clearly, imported ornamentation was a status symbol, as in the case of the Straits Eclectic houses. And according to some sources, the Chettiars employed local artisans who expertly reproduced some of the European accents used in their mansions.

 Vivid colours and art nouveau balustrades of the Pinang Peranakan Museum Source

Now I haven’t really managed to find material on the origin of Athangudi tiles. Could it be, then, that the tiles that Karaikudi is now famous for, is a cultural import from Europe via Southeast Asia?

Further reading/viewing:

Asia One: Singapore’s First Venture Capitalists

Chettiar’s Temple Society, Singapore: About Nattukkottai Chettiars

Charukesi Ramadurai: Film Trail in Chettinad

WSJ: The End of Punjabi Baroque

Thukral and Tagra: Punjabi Baroque


Posted in Architecture, Decor, Interior design, Singapore, Southeast Asia