The city and its houses: With Love, Madras by Vignesh Sivakumar and Ashna Lulla is a storytelling photowalk that delves into the souls of Madras’ residences

MAR 27, 2023 | By Tanvee Abhyankar
Sitting under a Mangalore-tiled pitch roof is a living and entertainment area in technicolour overlooking the riverside
The bedrooms in the Subramanian’s beach house open into an informal lounge with strong Balinese influences
A wide-mouthed brass pot called 'dekchi', was used for cooking

“Madras is not an easy city to understand. It has layers that need to be uncovered a little at a time. With Love, Madras is an ode to what makes Madras remarkable.” says Deborah Thiagarajan, Founder and President of Madras Craft Foundation and DakshinaChitra Museum, who has written the foreword for this book: With Love, Madras, exploring homes of the city. The book is a multi-faceted attempt to understand the city’s character through a selection of its  lived-in homes and residents that mark a quieter time in the history of Madras.

book review with love, madras
Front cover of the coffee table book, With Love, Madras, written by Ashna Lulla and photographed by Vignesh Sivakumar

Walk past the houses of Madras with author  Ashna Lulla and photographer  Vignesh Sivakumar and see everyday life through their eyes. Witness the sun rays cascading on the front porch, the weathering of Mangalore tiles on the roof, the creeping in of green algae on natural stone, the overgrowing of garden climbers in all directions, the play of shy house pets around the bungalow.

What they sought was seeking them

The course of this book was achieved by months and months of dissecting the city through its neighbourhoods, typology of homes, family dynamics, career choices, architectural attributes and personal aesthetics. The distillation of Madras’ architectural essence along with a few humane anecdotes, is presented in a collection of twenty homes.

For the work to have soul and body, the process had to be meaningful—the photographs were to have psychological, societal, architectural, moral and philosophical meanings. By interviewing, photographing and spending nearly two days in every home, the authors got a candid perspective on how the homes are “lived-in” and built over time.

A life-size replica of artist Raja Ravi Verma’s painting — ‘Radha in the moonlight’ hangs in Ashwin Subramaniam’s home


Colour is infused through the red Warangal dhurry, bright textiles, brass pots and Tanjore paintings

The book addresses questions like ‘What do people value or hold important when designing and making a home? What influences people in their choices and lifestyles? And lastly, how does one’s home impact their behaviours, emotions and aspirations?’ As for the multifacetedness of the book, the authors were led to think about aspects that are more than just architecture or design tips. “It was about understanding that the pulse of a city can be gleaned from the tiny details that come to life in a home.”Ashna and Vignesh explain.

Take it in, one house at a time

Every house has one chapter dedicated to itself, it is a beautiful collage of the house’s and its residents’ background story, the area and the year the house was built in. Woven in all these details are the photographs, which say it all at first glance.

How the place came to be, is another anecdote the authors have beautifully incorporated, for it has to be considered and provided with in order to understand the story entirely. They capture the details and shots of people using it in their daily lives and how their routine is formed in and around the house.

A picture window looks into the lush tropical expanse and endless blue skies. A chaise upholstered in a shade of blue that mirrors the sky sits by the window, forming the perfect reading nook at Reddy’s residence

Many photographs will wash you away and fill your heart by showing you how the house stands in support of its residents in their times of reflection. The book mentions things like the flora used in the courtyards for landscaping and the furry friends that come to meet, greet and eat. As one sees the older trees in the photographs, it is only natural to follow the imagery that it ignites.

The stories put no one aside as the supporting cast—everyone is the cause for everything here. Starting from the wearing out of white plaster from the walls to reveal the mortar inside, to the brown rust spots on the bronze idols and furniture pieces, to the knots in timber that get hollow with time and now hold remnants from the surroundings, everything is a prominent part of the story.

Architect Oommen Vergis spends his mornings painting at a little studio he constructed adjacent to their home


A portrait of architect Venkat and his wife Sandhya swinging on their oonjal (swing) overlooking their courtyard that transforms every season

The images pick up on things like how the lipping pattis are fixed shoulder to shoulder to the skirting, the ancient wooden pelmets, the air conditioner that has yellowed over time, the grouts left unfilled in the verandah which are now filled with dry leaves and small stones, previously installed electrical fixtures and switchboards that are now unsynchronised with the current furniture arrangement.

These are the tiny details that explain how a house ages with its residents, and while it does that it assumes the stage when the residents feel, love, cry, co-exist and celebrate. All while standing as the vanguard of ideal homes that inspire everyone to dream of their own sanctuary instilled with meaning and an endless sense of permanence.

A portrait of historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, his son Raghava, and their ginger cat in their courtyard


A portrait of Ranjeet and Maria Jacob in their mango orchard

You may also like: Time travelling into the glorious old Kolkata, Anirban Mitra captures the unseen homes of the city