Ross School’s Debra McCall Documents Frescoes, Reliefs At Thillai Nataraja Temple

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Debra McCall arrived in Chidambaram on October 2, and she jumped right in.

Of her three visits to India, she had never lived in the temple town of 62,000. The street where she lives is unpaved and lined with buildings—some concrete, some with thatched roofs—and people of all trades. Cows wander about.

“I love it here. Life is simple; people are generally curious about me and warm, particularly if I make an attempt to say hello or smile,” she said in an email interview. “The heat can be a bit much, so I’m lucky to have AC. I don’t think I could live here without it.”

Ms. McCall, the director of curriculum and professional development and dean of cultural history for Ross Upper School in East Hampton, is one of 30 educators awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to study “Roots of the Arab Spring: Understanding the Historical Context for the Arab Uprisings,” which she plans to apply to an elective on the Arab Spring and use to strengthen the Middle East thread throughout the curriculum.

Her project is documenting the thousand-year-old frescoes and reliefs at the Thillai Nataraja temple, home of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of Dance, which is just a few blocks from her home. She took a break to catch up with The Press about her time in India, the inspiration behind her research, and reflect on her time abroad.

The Press: When did you first hear about the Thillai Nataraja temple, and how?

Debra McCall: I was fortunate to study with Indrani Rahman, the renowned Bharatanatyam dancer who taught at Juilliard for years and at Harvard. She performed for such luminaries as President Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Nehru, Haile Selassie and Mao Zedong. She taught a small group of us “Siva’s Dance of Creation” in my Tribeca loft in 1994 or ’95, after her retirement. At one point in the dance, there is a line, “He danced in the Golden Temple, ecstatically.” I asked, “Where is this Golden Temple?” and she answered, ‘Chidambaram!’

From that moment forward, I wanted to visit Thillai Nataraja temple, the only Siva temple in which he is portrayed in dancing form. In other Siva temples, he is represented by only a lingam, or formless. At Chidambaram, he is portrayed in all three aspects.

What are you studying, specifically?

McCall: There are dance reliefs throughout the temple. I am focusing on several sets. First, there are 108 dance reliefs, called karanas, that are the basic moves of Bharatanatyam. Chidambaram is one of only two temples (some say the only one) that possess all 108. There are also dance reliefs lining various temples within the larger Thillai Nataraja temple complex, which is over 47 acres in size.

Another component of my project focuses on 1,000-year-old frescoes in the ceiling of the Parvati temple—Siva’s consort. A third area addresses the special festivals and daily life of the temple’s unique Dikshithar priests, who have presided over the temple for what is said to be thousands of years. Given the extensive amount of masterful research previously done on the dance reliefs, my project entails the photo and video documentation of these and the frescoes.

What is a typical day there like for you?

McCall: I wake in the morning to the building’s watchman [delivering] fresh cow’s milk to my door. Then I engage in physical practice—dance, yoga, Pilates, etc. I then prepare to go to temple to photograph or video. That is very intense work, as it takes tremendous focus. Given the heat in Tamil Nadu, southern India, I am exhausted by day’s end, so I usually need a day or two in between to rest, download material and prepare for the next shoot.

I use those in-between days to run errands, catch up on email, etc. I also go to temple for puja, or prayer, not every day, but several times weekly. Today was a special ceremony in one of the oldest parts of the temple where sits the original lingam—representing Siva—which thousands of years ago appeared in the midst of a mangrove forest. The ceremony this evening involved the abhishekam, or ritual washing of the ancient lingam with milk, ghee, honey, and coconut water.

How have you been received by the locals?

McCall: I am a curiosity. They do not understand why I am alone, as it is rare for any Indian to be without family of some sort. And, of course, I’m light skinned and lighter haired than they. But as I stated, they are generally warm and helpful if I reach out to them.

My neighbor invited me to her son’s 2-year-old birthday party, which was held at a large hall used for weddings. I wasn’t aware that here, 2-year-old birthdays are a big celebration. There were singers, a very elaborate stage, a video crew and monitors, and, of course, lots of food. I was called up to the stage, as was everyone else, to present my present and to have my photo taken with the entire family.

Indians remind me of having lived in Italy. They are very concerned that I eat, and want to know what I am eating. They enjoy feeding everyone. After the party, I was stopped in the street by someone who said, ‘Function!’ meaning he saw me at the function the previous night. Tamil is a difficult language, so the majority of my communication is through gestures and simple English terms, which most seem to understand, although there have been some comical moments.

Have you made any breakthroughs in your findings?

McCall: Given that I am mainly documenting, and the fact that I’ve been here three times previous to this one, the main surprises have been the beauty of the material I am shooting. Some pieces are so exquisite that I fall in love with them and don’t want to stop shooting. They are inherently, and paradoxically, mysterious and revealing at the same time.

Why do you feel this research is important?

McCall: The objects of my documentation are over 800 and, in some cases, over 1,000 years old and exposed to the elements. They need preserving. Furthermore, I could not find any adequate documentation of these beautiful dance reliefs or frescoes. Most photographs are from long before the digital age, and are out of focus and difficult to discern. These treasures are important for both cultural and scholarly, as well as aesthetic purposes; are part of our world cultural heritage; and, for their uniqueness, deserve to be seen by those unable to travel and visit the temple.

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