Tutuma and the Hamsam/Swan

ramanafatherwifeself-300 (2)Urmila my sister-in-love, or Tutuma as we all learned to call her, married our eldest brother and came home one morning. The marriage was a fait accompli and we soon got to know her and to love her.

She was a very warm person and had a special soft corner for me. I stayed with her for fairly long periods as she created a home or maike (maternal home) for me. She was an artist and introduced me to the concept of enjoying objets d’ art. My lifelong interest in collecting beautiful things was inspired by her.

She travelled with my brother to some interesting pockets in rural India. Her delight was enhanced when she discovered Karaikudi and the little shops that sold things discarded by the Chettiar community from their huge collections…this was the time when the community was moving away from the old ‘bangalas’ (bungalows) and cleared out their homes. Many interesting things found their way to these shops that had still not been discovered by city boutiques.

Tutuma picked up wonderful stuff. She brought back to Bombay a handful of gold foiled glass paintings that we mistook for Tanjore paintings. She gave me the choicest of he pieces and I still have four or five. Only later did I find out that they were painted back to front on glass and then framed.

Glass paintings

Tanjore painting is a classical South Indian painting style. It takes its name from the name of the town of Thanjavur (anglicized as Tanjore). The art form spread across the Tamil country and is said to go back to 1600 CE when the Nayakars of Thanjavur under the suzerainty of the Vijayanagara Rayas encouraged art—chiefly, classical dance and music—as well as literature, both in Telugu and Tamil and painting particularly in temples.

The style of Tanjore painting originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676 – 1855). Tanjore paintings are panel paintings done on wooden planks that gave the art form its Tamil name—‘palagai padam’ (palagai = wooden plank; padam = picture). The paintings are painted in rich and vivid colours and the subject matter is usually images of deities and other heavenly creatures with human beings also represented. What makes it unique is the use of glittering gold foil overlaid on gesso work, a white mixture of chalk, gypsum and pigment bound together with gum. The images are embellished with glass beads and precious and semi-precious gems.


Mysore paintings are a similar art form. Both Tanjore and Mysore originate from from the same style of Vijayanagara paintings. The same artists, Chitragars and Naidus migrated to various places including Thanjavur and Mysore. You can see the degree of similarity between the two styles while many differences make it two distinct styles.

The glass paintings are an improvisation of the traditional Tanjore Painting. These paintings are done on the back side of glass.

Glass painting

In Karaikudi Tutuma also picked up some beautiful wooden carvings. Knowing my penchant for Ganesha, she got me a beautiful one. Amongst her own collection was a magnificent Hamsam..the traditional and mythological bird associated with Goddess Saraswathi. The hamsa is depicted as the ‘vehicle’ or vahana of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. A white swan is often shown sitting at her feet. The sounds of the air that we inhale is called ‘ham’; the air that is breathed out is called ‘sah’. So Goddess Saraswati is supposed symbolically to ride the very essence of being: our breath.


The Hamsa is a familiar leitmotif in Indian art, literature, sculpture and textiles. It is an aquatic bird that resembles a goose or a swan. It is reputed to eat pearls and to be able to separate milk from water and drink only pure milk. The Hamsa represents the perfect harmony between spirituality and life. The Hamsa is seen as a symbol of purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana) and the highest spiritual accomplishment. It is supposed to transcend the limitations of creation for it can walk on the earth, fly in the sky and swim in the water.

I fell in love with this depiction of the bird and Tutuma promised me that she would get me one on her next visit. Sadly she could not find another oe nor did I when I visited the town Karaikudi and its shops a few years later. I had been on the lookout for one but never found a piece that said “take me home”.

Seven years ago, Tutuma passed away and left a great big void in our lives. Last year my brother Ramana decided to downsize his establishment and as giving away stuff that had accumulated in his home. I sent in my application for the hamsa and he immediately packed it and sent it with other stuff to my nephew’s place.

The tale does not end there as my nephew relocated to another city in a hurry and did not pen the parcel from Pune. It took another year before he came back to his apartment in Chennai and opened the parcel. I was away in Bangalore and he delivered it to my husband and finally, I opened the parcel and unpacked the exquisite carved wooden hamsam.

Today, it sits next to my chair where I chant my prayers, where I read and spend my time. It reminds me of the Goddess Saraswathi who has blessed me with many of her gifts and grace. It reminds me of the Tutuma, of her love and affection for me that anchored my being. It reminds me of my brother Ramana who brought Tutuma into our family and who shared this lovely piece of art work generously with me……and I share it with you all!

About padmum

You could call me Dame Quixote! I tilt at windmills. I have an opinion on most matters. What I don't have, my husband Raju has in plenty. Writer and story teller, columnist and contributer of articles, blogs, poems, travelogues and essays to Chennai newspapers, national magazines and websites, I review and edit books for publishers and have specialized as a Culinary Editor and contributed content, edited and collaborated on Cookbooks. My other major interest used to be acting on Tamil and English stage, Indian cinema and TV. I am a wordsmith, a voracious reader, crossword buff and write about India's heritage, culture and traditions. I am interested in Vedanta nowadays. I am now an Armchair traveller/opinionator/busybody!
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8 Responses to Tutuma and the Hamsam/Swan

  1. Grannymar says:

    This is very interesting. I remember seeing a picture years ago on the reverse side of glass, It was made with butterfly wings. Somehow it seemed wrong to me. I know the butterflies would be dead, but dreaded to think of someone hunting them for this purpose. Your pictures tell a more comfortable story.


    • padmum says:

      Yes Grannymar…I’ve seen these paintings with mounted butterflies and insects as well! In India art is associated with religion in a great way and paintings, sculpture, pottery, dance and music have been influenced by our religious beliefs and stories. Art forms have been codified and rules and regulations set up for practicing each genre many milleniums ago…it is called Bharatha Shastra!


  2. Delirious says:

    Beautiful! I am also a lover of art. I really appreciate this kind of craftsmanship


  3. Vignesh Eswar says:

    Tutuma also inspires in me a love for collecting rocks, semi precious stones, coins and an from an early session with one of her paintings- a love and appreciation for modern art. More importantly, she ingrains in me a sense of beauty and wonder for everyday things, and things all around. I carry these sensibilities to date. She is remembered fondly, and often.


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