The cool and shiny red-oxide flooring, like the smooth surface of a plum, is known to have been part of many houses built a few decades ago across the south Indian states, especially Kerala. What was thought a feature distinctive to old houses, is now making a comeback, thanks to the efforts of a small group of artisans encouraged by Chennai-based architect Thirupurasundari Sevvel.
As part of Nam Veedu, Nam Oor, Nam Kadhai, a collective for heritage enthusiasts, Thirupurasundari has been organising oxide-floor making workshops for participants who are willing to try their hand at the flooring technique. Before we begin discussing the art, Thirupurasundari warns, “It is not a skill-learning workshop. It is more of an introduction to the life of the artisans who do it. We want people to become more empathetic and listen to their stories, to understand what we have taken away from them. These workshops are the windows to the artisans.”
The idea was sown soon after Thirupurasundari finished her Master's abroad. “My Master's research was on the gap between traditional art forms and the new attention on it, and why the actual artisans are still not benefited. We went around the state in 2013 right after my Master's, meeting about 200-300 people who were once into the practice. Some were driving autos, one had started painting walls,” she shares.
This was also the time she met with Ayyanar from Puducherry, who has been reviving traditional building methods on his own. “We began Katralkoodam that focuses on building houses or structures using traditional techniques with green materials, those that are not harmful for the environment,” she adds.
Oxide flooring that is ubiquitous to old, traditional houses in south India, is better known in Kerala since these structures have been well-preserved, notes Thirupurasundari. “It was also a common feature in Karaikudi and in the southern belt. It was predominant in Kerala because it was preserved for a longer time,” she explains.
The first of her workshops began in 2013 and just last month, they conducted their 50th workshop. “I have not been chronicling them and only recently we opened an Instagram account. We later realised that the previous workshop was our 50th workshop,” she says. About 22 participants had taken part in this workshop.
The process of oxide flooring is one that consumes a lot of time and requires keen attention. The mix consists of lime plaster or mud or cement, and coloured oxide. Thirupurasundari highlights an aspect that is little-known. “Many different shades are possible to bring out when we’re trying the oxide flooring. People think that red is the only colour but we can make green, yellow, blue, etc. We’ve got a colour palette that people can choose from - 50 shades of green, yellow, etc. This is something a lot of them are not aware of. When we say oxide flooring, they immediately think of red,” she elaborates.
White cement or high-grade grey cement tends to set fast and is not usually preferred. Cement and oxide is mixed in its dry form and then water is added to form a slurry. The required colour is attained by varying proportions of the oxide and cement. The laying itself is another skilled process and the final output depends on the artisan’s hands. A day after laying the floor, it has to be cured with water at regular intervals. On the second day, it has to be stocked up with water to see if white spots appear on it. It then has to be allowed to dry for a few days and only then polishing can be done.
“For polishing, we only use beeswax, rice husk and coconut pith and it is done entirely by hand. No machine is used at any point during the process,” she adds.
“While people have always shown interest in such traditional options, over the past 15 years, its popularity has been increasing. However, a common idea is that oxide flooring is expensive. Now this is true but people have to realise it's mainly because there aren’t many who can do it,” she points out.
She further goes on to talk about the importance of artisans for sustaining such traditional arts. “Our only goal is artisans before art. Only if you preserve them, the art will survive.”
Another important point that people will have to consider while choosing oxide flooring is the quality of water. “Quality of water is most important, just like how the taste of food depends on the water used. It should not be salty or sewage mixed. This is crucial for the floor to come out well.”
Among red-oxide flooring’s unique aspects are its longevity and its property to keep the room cooler by a few degrees. Over the last 5.5 years, Thirupurasundari has facilitated 16-17 projects with red-oxide flooring across the state, with help from artisans and is overjoyed that the art form is being revived.