Works of wooden wonder
Basking in the glory of the GI tag, wood carvers of Thammampatti open up about the responsibility that comes with this recognition
A 36-inch idol of Lord Shiva with Goddess Parvati on his lap remains seated on Nandi. The entire figurine is supported on a lotus base. From the Abhaya (fearless) mudra on Shiva’s hand to Parvati’s anklets, every element, carved out of raintree wood with a wax finish, is chiselled to perfection with precision; courtesy, craftsman Sengottuvel. Coming from multi-generational families of woodcarvers in Thammampatti, this is no big feat for Sengottuvel and his ilk, who’ve been sculpting such masterpieces every day.
Carving a livelihood
Their years of hard work to put their signature art form on the global map was recognised in 2021 when the wood-carved idols got the honour of being the 36th product from Tamil Nadu to be granted the Geographical Indication tag. Located in Gangavalli Taluk of Salem district, the village houses 120 families following this profession. Neither the ups and downs over the years nor the pandemic has put a pause on the demand, says Sengottuvel, the president of Silpa Gramam Thammampatti Wood Carver’s Artisans Welfare Association and owner of Sengottuvel Wood Carvings.
“We’ve been witnessing a steady flow of orders through word-of-mouth. One significant change during the lockdown has been our presence on social media to market our sculptures widely. Currently, we also ship to the US, the UK, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia and France. The idols are priced anywhere from Rs 250 to a lakh. We’ve also been adapting to contemporary designs,” he says.
Thammampatti wood carving encompasses a wide variety of motifs, designs that are derived from architectural details of temples or heritage. The main product range includes idols of Hindu gods, mythological events or stories, Dasavatharam, vahanas, mythological creatures, door panels, temple doors, puja mandapam, temple cars, etc. The size varies from two to six feet in length and of proportionate width with an antique finish. The wood varieties commonly used are thoongavagai (raintree), vaagai (Albizia Lebbeck), mavilangai (CrataeveRoxburch), atti (Ficusracemosa), and Indian Kino (Pterocarpus Marsupium).
Work is worship
The wood carving practised by these craftsmen is specific to the rules and measurements of iconography defined in the Shilpashastra. There are three main stages involved — the preliminary cut, called jadippu; the second phase is sculpting and the third phase is when the whole idol is chafed to a smooth finish. The face is reserved for the last. “Sculptures, earlier considered objects of worship, have turned into utility items. I frequently export to Mumbai and Hyderabad. If we don’t stay updated and cater to the needs and preferences of the customers then we don’t have a market.
The Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation is doing its best to provide marketing assistance, upgrading the skills of artisans by imparting appropriate training, encouraging innovation in design, and providing socio-economic security for the craftsmen. But there’s room for improvement,” notes C Srinivasan, founder, C Srinivasan Wood Carvings. Subject to the magnitude of the project, six or seven artisans work on a piece for a labour charge of Rs 500 to Rs 600 a day.
While the profession seems to be thriving till date, the future remains uncertain, rue craftsmen. “Despite having a degree, we opted to pursue this art form out of interest. We cannot expect the same with our children who could earn more from corporate jobs. Having said that, my kids are helping me with marketing, branding, and export. But I do not know if they will be interested in learning the art. We have projects round the year. With support from the government, we are blessed to be provided with opportunities to showcase our skills and work within the country and overseas. And the respect that comes with the profession is perhaps the biggest motivator that keeps us going,” beams Sengottuvel.
Turning the spotlight on the talents of Thammampatti village, Chennai-based Big Short Films released a five-minute documentary in April. With over 69,000 views, the film put the local craft on a pedestal among global audiences. Vivi Raaj, the director, shares, “Visual media has power to take such promising stories outside. During our shoot, we were exposed to the ground reality of the craftsmen, their living conditions, and their challenges. But, we need to learn how to balance art and commerce from these craftsmen, and how they sustain in the modern world. Their journey could be a fine example to other artisans.” At a time when native art and artisans are struggling, this film could offer hope.
Awards and accolades
In this village of 120 families, there’s a total of 40 awardees; with one Presidential Award, three Living Treasures Awards, eight state awards, and 25 district awards.