The art that Nila inspires: Clay to grass, artisans on the river’s banks swear by her bounty

For the potters and the grass mat makers, the brass metal workers to the mirror moulders, several thousands will lose their livelihood if the Nila died.
The art that Nila inspires: Clay to grass, artisans on the river’s banks swear by her bounty
The art that Nila inspires: Clay to grass, artisans on the river’s banks swear by her bounty
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As Nila flows through Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram, she brings with her tradition and trade to the districts. While her water made the artisans decide to settle around the Bharathapuzha over the centuries, the clay on her banks helped the potters and artisans flourish, the grass floating on her surface helped communities make a living by making mats.

Bharathapuzha is today not as mighty as she once was. The river has shrunk, the water flow has diminished. Sand mining on the banks of the river is increasing by the day, and little is being done to protect the river.

Bharathapuzha is today not as mighty as she once was. The river has shrunk, the water flow has diminished. Sand mining on the banks of the river is increasing by the day, and little is being done to protect the river. 

Kerala's poet Edasseri Govindan Nair once lamented the death of Bharatapuzha, writing that the once mighty river would reduce into a drainage in the years to come.

Titled Kuttippuram Palam (Kuttippuram Bridge), Edasseri wrote about how the river was flowing beneath a newly constructed bridge.

“I stand proudly on the bridge, 
which was built with Rs 23 lakh, 
staring at the shrunken Perar (Bharathapuzha)
that flows underneath…” 

(Erupathimonnolam lakshamippol
Chilavakki nirmicha paalathinmel

Abhimaanaporvam njan eeri nilpaanu
Adiyile sheshicha perar nokki)

Concluding the poem, Edasseri wonders: 

"River, will you change into a drainage as time goes by?"

(Amba Perare nee maari pomo aakulayamorazhukku chaalai) 

Although Edasseri wrote the poem years ago, the prediction seems to have come true.  

But there are people who believe that reviving the art and craft around Bharathapuzha is critical to reviving the river itself, and that river and handicrafts are so closely linked that one cannot survive without the other.

Among them, are seven young people from Arangottukara village of Thrissur district. On a quest to preserve the rich culture, arts and crafts of their home - Kerala’s historical Valluvanad region - the group of seven decided to form a group. On a summer evening in 2004, Vayali Folklore Group was formed - not just to ensure that the traditional economy of arts and crafts survives, but thrives on the banks of Bharathapuzha.

Most of the members of Vayali are daily wage workers, and they decided to dedicate some of their time to their cultural mission. Among the many things they do is to support financially support traditional artisans, and make them a part of responsible tourism in the region.

Brass metal works

“When Vayali group members first met me, I was planning to give up my traditional occupation, just like my brothers had done,” says Sivanarayanan Moosari.

Sivanarayanan Moosari

Sivanarayanan and his family live in Desamangalam, a village that was once famous for its bronze metal works. Several families in the village were engaged in making metal handicrafts, until a few decades go.

But today, Sivanarayanan and his family are the only ones who are continuing with the tradition.

“My brothers quit the bronze work as there was no profit. I was about to quit, when Vayali came along. They gave me work - they asked me to make some musical instruments for their bamboo orchestra. That’s when I decided not to quit,” Sivanarayanan says.

Why Bharathapuzha’s clay is special

The Moosari community has a reason to stay on the banks of the Bharathapuzha. “Our life and livelihood is closely linked to the Bharathapuzha,” Sivanarayanan says.

Sivanarayanan Moosari is a master of bronze and other metal works.

He makes temple idols, ornaments for oracles and for temple arts, Astamangalya sets (eight things used in Hindu weddings), traditional utensils like Kindi, Uruli, Para, and much more.

“To make all of these things, we need clay from the river,” Sivanarayanan says.

Explaining the process, he says, “We need the clay to make molds for our crafts, and Bharathapuzha’s clay is the best. We grind the clay to make it really smooth; it is important that there is no coarse particle in it. We use this smooth clay to make our mold.”

“Not only should it be smooth enough to make the mold, the mold itself should be extremely strong. We pour molten metal into the mold, so the strength of the clay mold matters a lot. The metal crafts’ beauty depends on the strength and quality of the clay mold,” he explains.  

A sacred, temple art

Since most of the work that he does is for temples, Sivanarayanan says that he considers himself lucky.

“We consider it as a blessing. There are many who can’t even draw a picture of god. But we are blessed that we make idols out of metals,” he says.

Sivanarayanan adds, “There are certain vows to be followed while making idols. We don’t use non-vegetarian food at home, as we believe that we should be pure while doing these works.”

Sivanarayanan says that his products are in great demand, now that people have realised the value of age old traditions and crafts.

He was also excited to share the story of how super star Mohanlal asked him to make a ‘Pancha Loha’ bangle - a bangle made of five metals.

“I had made a Pancha Loha bangle for a person nearby, who worked in the film industry. It was after seeing it that Mohanlal asked me to make one for him. I was so excited and happy,” he says.

The Adakkaputhur Kannadi

Just like the Sivanarayanan, there is another Moosari family that depends on the clay from Bharathapuzha for a special craft.

While many of the art forms are traditionally practiced, there is a peculiar craft on the banks of Bharathapuzha, invented by Balan Moosari, who belonged to Adakkaputhur of Palakkad district.

Krishnakumar Moosari

Decades ago, Balan was mesmerized by the world famous Aranmula mirror - a handmade metal-alloy mirror. Though he tried to find out the secret to making it, he was unsuccessful, because the makers wouldn’t reveal their trade secret.

But Balan did not give up, and experimented for years to make a similar mirror. His hard work finally paid off, and the Adakkaputhur Val Kannadi was born.

Before he died, Balan passed on his invention to his son, Krishnakumar, who is today the only maker of these mirrors.

“My father, Balan Moosari, was a bronzesmith who used to make utensils, temple ornaments etc. Then one of his friends gave him the idea of making mirrors using bronze. So, every time he made something, he would make an extra mold for the mirror My father took 3 or 4 years to perfect the craft. And then a frame was made,” Krishnakumar tells TNM.

The secret of the metal mirror

This metal craft work is also closely associated with the river Nila - as Krishnakumar, too, uses the clay from the river for making the mold for the mirror.

“The main thing that goes into the making of the Adakkaputhur Kannadi is the clay from Bharathapuzha, along with mud tiles. They are mixed together to make this mold,” he explains.

“Copper and tin are the main elements used to make the mirror. But there is a certain proportion, which is different from how it is used otherwise. That is the secret element which gives the mirror its shine,” he says.

In these mirrors made of metals and alloys, the reflection is better than that of glass, which is a testimony to the artist’s rare talent.

Val kannadis (mirrors with a handle) are so closely related to the tradition of Kerala, that they are an inevitable part of Hindu weddings in the state. Which is why the demand for these mirrors is very high, says Krishnakumar.

“The smaller design is used mostly by Brahmins. During weddings, the bride holds a val kannadi. Now, they use our mirror so that they can see their faces in it. This mirror is also kept in prayer rooms at homes and as show pieces. Some people also buy them as gifts,” he says.

Krishnakumar says that he is happiest when people tell him that the Adakkaputhur Kannadi is better than the Aranmula mirror.

The Potters

Just 5km away from Desamangalam is a village of potters, Cheruthuruthi, in Thrissur district. A small village known for clay handicrafts, Cheruthuruthi has less than 100 houses, where families earn their living by making clay pots and handicrafts.

Cheruthuruthi is just one of the many villages in the districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram, where clay is the life and livelihood of the residents. Clay products from this area are renowned for their traditional style.

And the one thing that keeps the tradition alive, says Gopalan Kumbaran, is Bharathapuzha.

Gopalan, who belongs to the Kushavan community, is at home as he molds a clay pot in a shed attacked to his small house.

“Centuries ago, our ancestors migrated here from Andhra Pradesh,” he tells us.

“We were basically potters and known as Kumbarans. I have heard my father saying that his great grandfather and many others migrated to Kerala via Madurai. Some from our community members got settled in Madurai, while some others came here in search of a living,” Gopalan says.

“Bharathapuzha was the answer to our search. The river gave us the finest clay and sand, and the Kumbarans from Andhra decided to settle on the banks of the river, across three districts of Thrissur, Palakkad and Malappuram,” he explains.

Shaping the clay

As he molds the pot, Gopalan cannot stop talking about how Bharathapuzha has the finest clay in the region. “Even potters from Tamil Nadu come here to collect clay,” he says.

The art of pottery making, he says, depends on the smoothness of the clay, and the evenness of the fire. “We take a mixture of clay and really fine sand, and mold it into different shapes,” Gopalan explains. “Once it is molded, we dry the pot, and then bake it in a choola (fire yard) - making sure that the fire is even on all sides.”

“This is all about your mastery, and how you decide to mold them,” Gopalan says.

Despite changing technology, Gopalan says, their products are in high demand in kitchens across the state.

“People have realized now how healthy and tasty it is to cook in these pots. It is the healthiest way to cook. Now we have a lot of lot of demand, the only problem is we are not able to meet the demand,” the potter says.

‘Restrictions are hurting us'

Once upon a time, though, supply was not an issue, because raw materials were not an issue, Gopalan recalls.

“Earlier, we ourselves used to go to the river to collect the clay and sand for our needs, and bring them in baskets. But now, restrictions have been imposed on collecting clay and sand from the banks, as part of the checks on sand mining from the river,” Gopalan says.

“But people who smuggle sand in large quantities continue to do so. It’s the people like us, who take clay and sand in small baskets, who are struggling because of the restrictions,” he rues.

Though there are challenges, this handicraft on the bank of Bharathapuzha has a lot of demand.

Gopalan is sure that this artistry, that has remained in the area for many centuries, will last as long as the river lives.

“You have seen the river, it has been shrinking day by day. I remember how it had overflown earlier, we cannot survive without the river,” he sighs.

The women weavers of Valluvanad

In Killikurussi village in Thrissur meanwhile, another handicraft thrives, thanks to Nila. And unlike in Desamangalam, Cheruthuruthi and Adakkaputhur, it’s the women of the village who are the masters of this craft.

Prabhavathy Teacher runs a society that produces Kora grass mats, which are so famous that even UNESCO has a stake in the making of these mats. The make floor mats, table mats and other decorative mats.

Prabhavathy teacher

Prabhavathy joined the Kora grass mat weaving society in 1970s, and she learned how to weave grass mats, which was once a traditional occupation of the Kurava community. Even though she does not belong to the community, she soon realised that it was her passion.

In the 1990s, when the society was about to shut down and hand over the building to a government ITI, Prabhavathy went on a strike, declaring that the society would close down only after her death.

Today, it is the only place in Kerala - perhaps in all of India - where the Kora grass mats are made. Even people from foreign countries place orders for the mats made here.

Prabhavathy recalls how the labourers made mats earlier just to get one meal a day.

“Earlier, it was zamindars who ruled these areas. They would make us work for an entire day, and the remuneration was a bowl of gruel in the noon. They would sell these mats and made money for themselves. This society was established in 1960s against this exploitation,” she explains.

How the mats are made

“Bharathapuzha and mat weaving are closely related, for it is from this river that we get the grass and screwpine leaves,” Prabhavathy tells TNM.

“The screwpine leaves are soaked in the water for 3 days, and after that, they are beaten with a stick to take out the fibre, which is used to bind the grass together,” Prabhavathy explains.

It takes about 10 to 13 days to weave a single mat, she says, and the weaver has to dip each blade of grass in the dye separately, dry it, and then weave them together carefully.

‘The next generation is not interested’

While the grass mats are extremely popular, Prabhavathy , too, faces the same challenges that other artisans on Bharathapuzha’s banks face.

“Earlier, we ourselves used to go to the river to get the grass, and prepare it to be used in mat weaving. Now, we buy grass for money, although we still get the screwpine leaves from Nila,” Prabhavathy says.  

“As the river lost its prosperity, grass on its banks have also dried up,” she says.

The prices have also increased because of this, but the bigger challenge for her right now is that the younger generations don’t want to continue with the traditional occupation.

“Very few people want to do this now, as people are more interested in education than art. Art is of lower priority to them,” Prabhavathy says.

“We have enough customers, we even have high profile customers. But we don’t have enough staff, and therefore, we are not able to meet the demand,” Prabhavathy rues.

(All photographs and videos by Lenin CV)

(Edited by Ragamalika Karthikeyan)

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