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  • Writer's pictureTulika Publishers

Q&A with Ashwin Prabhu

Our latest book, Sculpted Stones – Mysteries of Mamallapuram is out now! Here's a conversation with the author Ashwin Prabhu about the book...


1. As a teacher, you have been taking children on visits to various historical sites. What did you observe about children's reactions and responses on these visits?

Children usually benefit from a structure, a framework, within which learning can happen. Left to themselves, the most likely response is for children to give these sculptures a once-over and say “I'm done”! But when given a certain scaffolding, they tend to spend more time observing a work of art, which is when 'seeing' happens, and not just 'looking'. A small question which directs, a little task which calls for counting the number of elephants maybe – these kinds of pointers are enormously useful in getting children to 'engage' with historical art.

2. Was that what inspired you to do this as a book for children?

Well, yes! To be honest, I have been doing these trips with school children for a few years now and it never occurred to me that something like this could be book material. A former colleague and I were talking about teaching-learning processes in the social sciences. I spoke about the roles of observation, description and questioning, and that I had seen how effective that is, in the context of these school trips we were making to Mamallapuram. She was the one who then saw 'book potential' in it and egged me on to further expand my thinking and see if we could make a book out of it.


3. What did you enjoy and find challenging while writing this book?

The enjoyable part of course was the 'storytelling' aspect and the little cues to the reader to look in the right places. Also, the opportunity to work with a former student of mine who's now a photographer-videographer was hugely gratifying.

What was challenging was to replicate the same kind of dialogue one could have on an actual field trip within the template of a book. And here, I got a lot of help from the Tulika editorial team in framing my questions and helping retain a conversational feel.


4. What was your process of research like for Sculpted Stones?

I have been reading about Mamallapuram for a few years now, thanks to my association with the Tamil Heritage Trust, a history interest group which I volunteer with. That association has given me the opportunity to listen to several subject matter experts speak on Pallava art and history and also read what scholars have written on it. So, I think several years of visiting Mamallapuram combined with the school trips helped me list down what I wanted to cover in the book. But I think reading Michael Rabe's book on the Great Penance finally gave me the core material for the 'Is It This or Is It That?' chapter which sort of forms the backbone of the book.

5. The photographs in the book are stunning! What was collaborating with Nithya V. like? Since the photographs are visual aids to what you're conveying through the text?

Like I mentioned, Nithya was my student in school many years back and little did I imagine that one day we would be professional collaborators on a project like this. But it's been fantastic to work with someone so young and talented.

The lead character in the book of course is the visuals, and the accompanying text just serves as aids to the reader to observe carefully. The visuals are doing all the hard work here. So, I think the book owes a lot to these very detail-oriented, carefully-framed photographs which Nithya has taken. I think short of holding the reader by the hand and taking them to Mamallapuram, these visuals do everything else!


6. As an educator yourself, what are some things you think can be done to inculcate an interest in heritage/historical art among children?

In my view, the main reason I wrote a book like this is its pedagogical thrust – that 'fact' and 'knowledge' needn't necessarily be the entry points to the study of history and art, but that educators can use 'observation', 'description' and 'imagination' to make the study more inclusive. An approach like this also brings about 'engagement' – that magic relationship which, as educators, we seek to bring about in our students. If this book can spark this idea and promise in teachers across schools, I will be very happy with the effort.


7. What are you hoping for readers to take from Sculpted Stones – Mysteries of Mamallapuram?

I am hoping that the first thing that happens once a reader (at least in the state of TN) reads this book, regardless of whether they have visited earlier or not, is to go back to Mamallapuram and see it with fresh eyes. And I wish that they find new treasures and wonders, which have always been there over the centuries but which are now accessible.


Some trivia:


1) Many of you may know that Mamallapuram takes its name from "Mahamallapuram" – capital of Mahamalla, the title of the Pallava king, Narasimha I. What does "Mahamalla" literally mean?

A: Great Wrestler


2) How tall is Krishna's Butter Ball?

A: 20 feet high


3) One theory is that the Great Penance sculpture is believed to represent Arjuna's penance to Lord Siva for a specific boon. What did Arjuna undergo rigorous penance for? In other words, what was it that he wanted from Lord Siva?

A: The Pasupatastra, the most feared weapon in Hindu mythology


4) When was Mahabalipuram declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

A: 1984

Sculpted Stones – Mysteries of Mamallapuram takes us through the ‘open-air museum’ of Mamallapuram, for a one-on-one ‘looking’ experience through a rich archive of 65 vivid photographs.

Buy a copy here!


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