Off the road to the popular beach town Kovalam, just 10 kilometres outside Thiruvananthapuram, there stands what looks like an abandoned show village at Vellar.
Built with fanfare in 2011, it wears a look of forgotten emptiness – its craft huts lie abandoned, its lawns and ponds are choked with weeds, its open theatres are covered by overgrown bushes and its only denizens are groups of stray dogs who wander sleepily around.
But this was not supposed to be the fate of the Vellar craft village built by the Kerala Tourism department six years ago. The village, modelled on the Dilli Haat in New Delhi and built at a cost of Rs 10 crore, was supposed to be an attractive tourist destination cradled in the lap of nature. With play areas for children, a swimming pool, parks and a hill top restaurant, it was to be the perfect suburban retreat.
It was to be a sought-after marketplace where the best of Kerala’s traditional craftsmen could sell their masterpieces to avid buyers. And with its four open theatres and an auditorium, the village was also to serve as a cultural hub and play host to performances of all kinds.
But six years later, just five of the 27 craft huts still host any craftsmen. And even these men see their spots as workshops, while they go elsewhere looking for showrooms and customers.
“When this project was started, we had to interview for these spots. Thousands of artisans attended the interviews and very few excellent people were selected. Initially there were around 12 units here but now we are just five units. Among these, two units are of Kudumbasree. We make craft items here and sell them outside based on orders,” Nagappan, an expert woodcarver tells The News Minute.
He says he has profitable channels and markets for his products elsewhere, and wonders what the use is for him, the government or the tourism department of remaining at the village.
“Earlier we were told that tourists would come here to the village and buy our products. We have not seen any of them over the years,” he says.
Nagappan is currently working on the finishing stages of a wooden sculpture titled ‘Viswaroopam’, which costs around Rs 10 lakhs.
“It took about a year for us to complete the work on the sculpture. It has been done purely by hand, and we don’t even use polish for giving it a shine. These all are wonders for tourists. If the government gives proper attention and publicity to the village, we will not have to run around to find ways to sell our products,” he adds.
A Prathap, a two-time National Award-winning coconut carver, also has craft store at the Vellar craft village, but has to depend on exhibitions and other galleries and showrooms to sell his products.
“They spent lot of money here to construct the village, but now there is no use for it. There is another craft village following the same model in Varkala. That one is run by a (cooperative) society, and during the tourist season it earns about Rs 15 lakh each day from (entry) tickets alone. The money goes to the society as well as the Tourism Department. Why can’t the Department make proper use of this place too? Kovalam gets lakhs of domestic and foreign tourists every season. With proper planning, the government can draw all those tourists to this village too,” Prathap says.
Mohanan, a woodcarver and another two-time National Award-winner, suspects that some authorities have willfully sabotaged the Vellar village.
"After inaugurating the village, the government did not pay any attention to it. Nobody even knows that a place like this exists here. Without publicity, how will people come to know about it? We think that there are some plans behind this neglect. They wanted to hand over this place to someone else. Otherwise why would the Department abandon such a beautiful place that can bring them huge revenues. Nobody from the Department has even visited this place,” he asserts.
Indeed, alleges Mohanan, when the government first contracted out the management of the venue to a private company, it was given at an absurdly low rent.
“They had first rented it out to a private party for just Rs 10,000 per month. Just imagine, such a large area with so many facilities being rented out for such a low amount. Later when the government changed we took the matter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the contract with the private company was withdrawn,” he says.
He says that it’s time the Tourism Department came up with new plans to revive the Vellar craft village, including perhaps handing over the village to the same cooperative society that is managing the Vadakara craft village.
“This is actually a great idea and provides an important cultural space. Renting out spaces for cultural, theatre or arts workshops will itself bring huge revenue to the government. We will also have good business,” says Mohanan.
Photos by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair
Edited by Rakesh Mehar