On Cowley Brown Road, between recharge shops and pharmacy counters, a creaky roller shutter rises halfway revealing a dingy room. An eagle with outstretched wings atop a massive iron-grey machine blocks the entrance.
Levers extend sideways, plates protrude forward and elaborately carved women sit on its body. Stacked waist-high on the floor beside, are heavy rectangular blocks each with a Tamil or English letter embossed on it. It is a 190-year-old Colombian hand-press, among the earliest to print complete broadsheets in one shot, and rarely witnessed in entirety. Finders usually dump the letter blocks or sell the dismembered eagle counterweights for melting. For antiques collector K.R. Dinesh, this dust-bathed tonne-heavy possession is one of the thousand-odd proofs of his love affair with the old.
Squeeze between the letter blocks and the press to enter a windowless godown so chock full of artefacts that walking room is hard to come by. The walls are hidden behind ship clocks, statues and wooden pillars, and the floor beneath bursting cardboard boxes, cupboards and gunny sacks. Their beginnings lie in the Palakkad home where Dinesh grew up exchanging his half anna pocket money for a fistful of old coins from the roadside dealer.
“I was always fascinated by anything old — hand-me-downs, old ornaments, old buildings, old people,” says Dinesh. But interest became obsession during his days at the Harrisons Malayalam plantations in Surianalle, near Munnar. “I didn’t even know the word ‘antique’ then but the butlers and maids in the old English houses used to tell me about the ancient ornaments that hung there,” he says.
His collection began small — with Parker pens, china dishes and outdated coins from shopkeepers — but it grew as he sold common items and bought unusual ones with the profit. Soon the nooks and crannies of his home filled up and his family worried about tetanus infections from poking around rusted discards. His 40 years of revering the antique has led to a packed home and an overflowing godown.
From the locks that fall out of grandfather chairs to cobwebby lampshades hanging off walls, every specimen narrates a journey of discovery. For the most part, the world’s trash is Dinesh’s treasure. “The best items are found when people de-clutter their ancestral homes and throw out all that they think is old and useless,” says Dinesh. Over a hundred of his Tirupati marapaachi bommais have been thus recovered from Naidu and Brahmin homes. Among his prized possessions is a portrait of young Gandhi woven in silk by the famous Kuo Hwa silk factory in Hangzhou, China, in 1935. “I’d gone to pick up a single-plank rosewood chest from a family and they assumed I would chuck the junk in it away. But this portrait was in that!”
Says Dinesh, “The key to finding antiques is to be able to recognise them first and for that you must know the history of the time.” Between amputated eagle statues and ancient weighing balances sits an unassuming kettle-like pot. He bought it for a song off a kettle seller. “I knew there was something special about it because it had an unusual lid. Turns out it’s one of the earliest pressure cookers made by Clark and Co during the World War for soldiers to boil food in higher ranges,” he says.
Similarly, crazy stories unfold about his 90-year-old valve radio with the needle intact, the Irula tribe bamboo honey-collector, the noodle maker and the ice cream churner, the dozens of movie projectors and film cameras, the hundreds of pocket watches stashed in cloth bags, the countless ship compasses, the typewriters, mechanical clocks, sewing machines and gramophone records.
Dinesh specialises, however, in wooden pillars and the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. Frame after frame of Varma’s oleographs lie piled up. A few feature Varma’s voluptuous women with sequined saris made of delicate muslin stitched over their curves. “People often call and say they’ve got original Ravi Varmas to sell, but it’s nuances like the kind of wood used to frame the oleograph that give the fakes away,” says Dinesh.
In the early days, Dinesh would take off to godforsaken hideouts across South India, spurred by rumours of prospective antiques. Later, letters from fellow collectors and reliable sources would take him on long expeditions, including some wild-goose chases. His collection is reaching saturation but his eyes still light up at a phone call hinting a new find. Retirement from PSG Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, has given him time to sort through his undocumented treasures, sell some duplicates and advise other collectors. He says, “Someday, when I have the time and space, maybe I should make a museum of this place. But I’ve never really done this for the money, just for the love of collecting.”