By Devki Pande
Shree Shakti Sawmill, Shakti Timber mart, Shree Lakshmi Woodworks, Shree Maruthi Wood and Timber, Trojan plywood. The closer you get to Channapatna, the more of such buildings are spotted on the road. Channapatna itself looks like pieces put together to form a town; a set of bare blocks which is a work in progress. Some pieces are pink, some are green, and then some still need to be shingled. I am here to meet a veteran artist, who practices the art of lacquer ware and wooden toys. The threshold of his house is marked with lines of kolam. I knock thrice, and then when there is no answer, I rattle the latch for good measure. He opens the door in a lancet of black, wearing a dhoti and some stripes underneath it. A red vermilion dot in the centre of his forehead is encased in a circle of yellow powder, and it matches the border of his dhoti.
“I started when I was twelve”, he introduces, ushering me in, not wanting to beat around the bush. Part of it is because I am holding a diary as long as my forearm and struggling. The other reason is because he is in the middle of something; he holds a sharpened tool in one hand, and the fingers of the other are curved with an invisible object between them. There is a fog inside the house and with the sun, I can see wispy, smoky tendrils. Noticing the discrepancy for the first time today, he leaves the door open and flaps his hands around to disperse the air. I duck, trying to make it look like I was dusting some debris off my hair.
“I have been practising this craft for fifty-one years and apprenticed more than three hundred people,” he confides. His age, then, would be in the domain of the latter sixties. His name is K. Kenchaiah, and he runs his own handicraft business in a town that traces the origin of this art to Persia. As he speaks, his hand opens in a mudra to reveal a spinning top that leaves blurs of its imprints. He stops it, turns it around and then spins it again; this time the crown strikes the ground. He is demonstrating that it works both ways, but I disagree. There is a reason that the spindle exists. My childhood was spent trying to convince my father that a top was not meant to be spun on its crown. He would nod his head seriously, and the moment I gave it over, he did it again. “There is always more than one way to do something”, he would say, trying to make a lesson out of it.
One of the tables has glasses, bottles of paint and browned water. An incomplete toy, half glossed, and the other half with a matte texture lies next to a pen-stand with red flecked paint brushes exploding out of it like a rocket. Kenchaiah pulls out a model of an orange-coral Hanuman frozen in leaps while carrying the Sanjeevani Mountain on his shoulder. He explained that it is adjustable, pulling out a gilt painted gada and fitting it into a clenched fist, adjusting a mukuta on the head. He makes a movement, and the sculpture splits into two halves. “I won an award for this”, he tells me. Certificates frame the walls; some accolades are as old as 1979 and show him with a full head of black hair and a mustache that greys only a little bit. He picks out something else to show; a container designed as a birdhouse.
“You can put chocolates inside”, he says, opening and closing the lid to show me. The birds on the ledge flap with the movement. It is cushioned with newspaper, ready to be gifted.
“For Obama’s children,” he adds as his is face splits into a smile, and he is only half joking. He helped to make the set of fifteen lacquer ware toys presented to the President of the United States during his visit to New Delhi this year. He helped to make the Karnataka Tableau displayed at the twenty-fifteen Republic Day Parade; the Channapatna Toy float that won the third prize in the Tableaux category. He has won many awards for his work; in 2002 he was presented with a State Award for his contribution to the craft. The wall opposite the certificates has folded up steel railings and lengths of nylon forming a pallet. I suppose you don’t get this good without making some sacrifices.
There is a crunching, whirring sound and a yellow bulb lights itself above the blocked-in window. Kenchaiah gets to his feet and picks up a log from his worktable. The bars on the window act as a rack for his tools. He selects one with a fluted end and begins to chip away at the bark. When it is suitably tapered, he inserts the end into the lathe. He beckons me with a finger so that I can see how he does it. “Adjust maadi”, he says. The log begins to turn round and round, so fast that I could mistake it as being static. Kenchaiah places the blade of a chisel against the wood, using it like a vegetable peeler, and peels away the rest of the bark as if it were a carrot stick. A cream, naked cylinder emerges from under the textured brown. I want to do that too; I imagine it would feel just like peeling off a dried skin of fevicol.
“Aale mara.” He says, smoothing the surface so that any consequent points are blunted. Ivory-wood. It is easy to see the colour is off-white, with the barest tint of yellow. Outside, a collection of logs become a part of sunlight and return it, blinding the eye.
He selects a finer chisel and presses the tip against the grain, and a circular cross section separates out, shrinking until it is the size of a paisa. He varies the pressure and position of the blade to undulate the log, making it bulge and cave in; making it voluptuous. A shower of white shavings soft enough to be chocolate sprays out. White and cream and yellow curls are everywhere; on the ground, on my face, sticking to his left breast like they are part of his skin. “Agarbatti stand”, he says when I ask him what he is making. The surface of the wood is warm due to the lingering effects of friction. He pulls out a hard strip of vegetable dye, which looks like a piece of coloured wood. But when he puts it against the agarbatti stand, the heat melts it, and a rim of red appears and thickens. My mouth falls open in delight. It is like magic. I can see the circles of colour appearing one after the other, and deepening, thickening to form rings. He replaces red with green for the belly, and bands of olive begin to wrap themselves rapidly around the bulge. When he chooses black for the cross section of the circle, just a touch of a millisecond transforms it into a painted pupil. The dye is a cousin of fast burning wax; it melts and condenses immediately. The top of the strip is still gooey. He extends a sliver from it like cheese from a pizza and drops it into his mouth.
“Khayega bhi toh kuch nahi hoga.”, he says to my curled lip, chewing and swallowing. Even if I eat it, nothing will happen. “Have some”, he invites. “It’s just vegetable dye”. So I extend a few fingers and pull out a dribble of green. It is not sticky at all and not entirely unpleasant to taste either. Our Adam’s apples bob together as the lathe whirrs.
Before motors were invented, toy making was a different art, all hand carven and hand melted. The form would be made by slicing pieces from a chunk and sandpaper would finish it off by softening the edges.
Obama’s visit has only fueled a demand for the lacquer ware. But there are other arts which are unable to adapt for many reasons. One of the employees at the Museum of Folklore in Ramnagar is a member of a tribe called the Neel Garara Pada. This tribe is a community of singers; the tradition passed down from parent to child, and Mallaya, a caretaker there, volunteered to sing a song for me in Kannada. These past seven nights leading to Shivratri, he said that it is all that he has been singing. The bhajan he chose- Manteswamy, is much in the style of ‘you are like this, and you are so great that you did this’. His voice seemed in auto tune; as if there were backing vocals running parallel to his music. The only accompaniments he opted for were snapping fingers and a tapping foot to keep the beat. He was eager to sing, almost as if he doesn’t get enough chances to. Encouraged by my applause, he asked to sing another. This time, in praise of Nage Gowda, the man who set up this museum of folk art. He made up the verses impromptu and wove them into melody as he sang, and he sang like it was a song rehearsed over and over and committed to memory. This is part of his learning; much like a student of Carnatic music learns how to construct tanas out of thin air. It takes years and years of practice and at the end of the passageway if there is no reward to be reaped, the art dies out naturally.
But folk art is important because it reminds us of a journey of traditions that our ancestors used to practice that mean something else in the new world.
Kolam, for example, is now known as a decorative pattern on the threshold of homes, often interlocking in a double infinity to keep evil spirits out of homes. However, it began as a way to feed insects and stop them from coming into the house – an act of charity and the powder was rice-flour coloured with vegetable dye, much like the strip in Kenchaiah’s hands.
“Now,” Kenchaiah says, “Watch this.” He unwraps a dried, skin coloured strip of Thale. Thale, I write down dutifully. “No, no,” he says. “Thale. It is Thale”, with an emphasis on the ‘L’ sound. The leaf was wound around the window bar. He folds it and holds it against the wood as if it were a whetstone. It is the palm leaf which is the difference between gloss and matte. Palm is also used to insulate – I briefly remembered seeing a mound of coconuts covered with palm fronds on the way to Channapatna. Kenchaiah uses the leaf to smoothen and to lop away any offending pieces of dye that have blobbed on the side. He finishes by drilling a hole into the back and uses a gouge to separate the finished piece from the rest of the raw log. With a thunk and a dusting of powder, it falls into the palm of his hand.
“Look.” He says. He reaches over for a packet of Om Shanti Om Flora Agarbatti and lights it. Instead of sticking up like a ramrod, the incense slants slightly on its stand. Already the tip has begun to crown and reduce with white ash. The pillar of cinder is breaking and he thinks to touch it, but at the last moment pulls back. He uses his calling card instead; a fluorescent yellow with a length of green on the bottom. It reads, ‘Sri Ganga Parameshwari Handicrafts’, with his name and number on the corners. The edges begin to singe and distort as they come in contact with the ember.
Devki is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. She worked at Contract Advertising Ltd, Essel Vision Productions Ltd and has also developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures as well.