“To understand how this lock works, you’ll have to listen to a story,” begins Pradeep Kumar, a third-generation lock supplier from Dindigul, pointing to a specific lock from a small set of similar looking Dindigul mango locks placed on the glass counter. The mango lock gets its name from its shape, one that’s unique to Dindigul locks.
We’re at Pradeep’s store in Begambur, Dindigul, which is sandwiched between a jewellery shop and small clock showroom. A customer walks in with a problem – his folks have locked the house with the key inside. “What lock is it?” Pradeep asks. “It one of the press types,” says the customer. “You’re in luck, it’s not a Dindigul lock,” Pradeep replies, offering him a solution to his problem. Pradeep then turns to us ready to plunge into the story, a modified version of the story his grandfather told his customers.
“A bullock cart driver who works at a rice mill has a key to the godown. He opens the godown to load 20 bags of rice from inside onto his cart. By the time he’s done loading the bags, the owner of the godown, who is overseeing the loading, gives a key to the kanakku pillai (accountant) and asks him to lock the godown. We all know that the bullock cart driver is a loyalist and can always be trusted. The accountant, on the other hand, can never be trusted. If the accountant were to go back and open the godown when no one’s around, he will find that the key he possesses does not work!” Pradeep pauses here.
“You see, the key that the accountant has can only be used to lock and the key the driver has can only be used to open. Whereas the owner has a single key that can both lock and open. We call this lock Vichitra (their trade name),” he presents two keys – one that opens and another that locks – with a flourish.
Such stories are aplenty with Pradeep who takes particular pride in telling them to his customers. “I’d do this all day. If the customer has the time, I’m glad to explain how a lock works with a story,” he adds with a big smile.
Among the many types of locks we’re shown, there is the ‘button’ lock – a unique lock that opens only if you were to press a button concealed behind the lock and turn the key simultaneously; a ‘direction’ lock that works only if the hand on the lock’s front is moved to a particular position and then the key is turned; the Saavi pudicha pootu (key that grips the lock) which is explained with a jewellery store robbery scenario.
Direction lock top right; Saavi pudicha pootu second row, second last on the right
The saavi pudicha pootu comes with two keyholes and jams if anyone tries to open it with a different key. “The robber who comes to steal from the shop panics seeing the key caught inside the lock and flees. In the morning, when the owner returns to his shop, he can use the ‘release’ key on the side key-hole and be informed that a robbery attempt was made the previous night,” goes the story.
There are also giant locks used for temple doors, ones that makes the sound of a bell at every turn of the key, the sizes of which can be custom made.
A standing testimony
Pradeep, who has spent all his adult life selling Dindigul locks, tells us that there are different versions to its history and refuses to get into the details. “Everyone will tell you their own version. I can only tell you what I have heard from my father and grandfather. There are different names for the locks too, so no one has all of it right,” he points out. But there’s one fragment of history that he’s willing to stand by. “I can tell you that the Dindigul locks are at least 400 years old and there’s proof.”
Referring to the Dindigul Malai Kottai (hill fort), not far from his shop, Pradeep tells us that the lock found on the fort’s door is standing testimony to the locks’ long history. “It is fully functional and you can see it with your own eyes,” he adds, promising to take us there later.
Maintained by the ASI today, the fort was built in 1605 by the Madurai Nayak king Muthu Krishnappa Nayak for his sister Rani Mangamma and was a place of strategic importance later during Tipu Sultan’s rule.
From the inside of the Dindigul fort, the lock can be seen on the closed door
The importance of the GI tag
The Dindigul lock recently received the GI tag, promising a boost for the industry. A geographical indication (GI) is a special sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and is useful in maintaining uniqueness and authenticity of the product. While Pradeep tells us that knowledge about the locks is strong among Tamil people, the word needs to be spread for Dindigul’s fame to reach further. “Tamil people who know the value of Dindigul locks may buy them, but non-Tamils don’t know about us,” he says.
Pradeep goes on to elaborate that the market took a beating as soon as the Aligarh locks entered the industry around the 1970s. Placing a small brass lock on the counter he explains, “This is the smallest Dindigul lock, it’s not being made anymore. It went out of production in the 70s after which the Aligarh locks and then subsequently the China locks started coming in.”
The small locks measuring 3/4th of an inch were priced at Rs 30 when the Aligarh locks came in for Rs 3. “Imagine how the market for Dindigul locks would have slumped. When these small locks were sold at Rs 50, the Aligarh locks were available at Rs 20, around which time the China locks came in for Rs 10. This was a setback for both of us,” he says.
Pradeep also explains that while locksmiths were producing 15-20 such small locks per day, the machine cut Aligarh locks were coming in at 1000s per day. Soon the 3/4th of an inch Dindigul locks went out of production entirely. But there’s hope that with the GI tag being granted the market would soon expand.
Need for more youngsters
Dindigul locks are manufactured by skilled locksmiths residing in villages around Dindigul town. Once teeming with hundreds of workshops, the villages barely have a handful today. The onus is on youngsters with a passion to learn locksmithery, Pradeep says.
“People assume that the craft is dying and that the knowledge of making rare locks is being forgotten, which is partially true. But I believe instead of glorifying a decline, we should focus on encouraging youngsters to show interest in learning the craft. The locksmiths I work with today are all above 50 years of age and soon their time will be up. They are willing to pass on their knowledge but very little people show interest to learn,” he frowns.
At this point, T Marudamuthu, who has been a locksmith for over 68 years, walks into Pradeep’s store with a newly made lock, wrapped inside a small and soiled yellow cloth-bag. He waits and listens while we discuss about the current state of Dindigul locks.
Hailing from Nallampatti, Marudamuthu has been working in pattarais (workshops) since he was 7 years old. “There used to be around 80 in my village once, today there are about 8 of us who make these locks,” he tells us in his soft voice. About 65 years ago, when the locks were priced at about 75 paise, Marudamuthu says he made 4.5 anna per lock (28 paise). “I make Rs 130 per lock because I sell them here. There are those who make just Rs 80 per lock,” he adds.
The money he makes is divided between him, a driller who works the holes in the key heads and the person who does nickel plating for the finished locks. Marudamuthu averages 2 locks per day, adding that when he was younger and when he worked for a wage at someone else’s shop, he made about 8 locks per day. “You could be assured that during the 70s, every workshop around Dindigul produced 100 such locks,” Pradeep adds.
Is the Dindigul lock industry slowly losing its skilled labour? Pradeep does agree that the locksmiths have been undervalued both by the industry and by the government. “Had they encouraged the locksmiths with incentives and formed a proper association that cares about their well-being, it might not have come down to this today,” he reasons.
But Pradeep is quick to dismiss any alarming ideas. “The one person when could make all the trick locks passed away recently. But we are finding ways to revive the craft. I made one of the locksmiths dismantle a button lock entirely so he could learn how to make it. A few media persons wrongly reported that the button lock is no longer being made. That’s not true. It can be made even today. All is not lost,” he assures us.