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Aachis of Chettinad

Part 2 Dissertation 2022
Sweta Solai Lakshumanan Sanker
Royal College of Art | UK
As a fifth-generation descendent of the trader V.L.V. Velayuthem Chettiar, I use this dissertation to examine how women in the Nagarathar Nattukottai Chettiar merchant caste historically navigated gendered restrictions in Chettinad houses in Tamil Nadu. Using my ancestral home, I explore how women (Aachis) circumvented oppressive spatial forms and practices, seizing space and power. With the absence of seafaring husbands, gender norms would be upturned, as would rules around women’s occupation and ownership of space.

Aachis managed finances, raised children and, crucially, kept the ancestral mansions, maintaining inter-class relations and associated social capital, while subverting repressive gender dynamics. Through archival research, drawing and model making, and participatory research involving my own images, models and female members of my family, I reconstruct erased spatial histories within Nagarathar Nattukottai Chettiar life. Caught between inheritance disputes and maintenance costs, many Chettinad houses are dilapidated with their spectacular features — Athangudi tiles, stained glass, ornate Burmese teak doorframes — being auctioned and shipped to new homes in the diaspora. I reflect on regimes of inheritance which favour male heirs and, as a woman, consider how the historical practices of Aachis may inform our ongoing relationships with these houses today, and indeed with each other.

Sweta Solai Lakshumanan Sanker

Mark Campbell
Thandi Loewenson
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