The farther I travel, closer I am to myself.
Northern Kerala or as the natives called it, ‘Malabar’ is renowned for its 3Cs – Culture, Cricket and Cake. It’s rich & distinct cultural heritage has attracted connoisseurs of art and crafts across the globe in large numbers. Famed for its unique balance of cultural intermixing and preservation, the contemporary manifestation of its proud legacy in arts and crafts can be attributed to its flourishing trade with the Arabian Peninsula, folk elements that overcame the barriers of religion, and the influence of cultural practices that has passed on for generations among the Adivasis of Wayanad.
As somebody who had spent his childhood in Malabar, a visit the Sargaalaya Arts and Crafts Village at Vadakara was nostalgic in many ways and had a sense of homecoming in the light of vagabond life that I’ve been leading off late. It rejuvenated the fading memories of Theyyam and Moodiyeetu which once use to shine brightly along with the soft glow of earthen oil lamps. I felt like being that little kid I once was, filled with all the curiosity in the world.
Sargaalaya Arts and Crafts Village is an institution that is focused on the preservation and marketing of dying crafts to ensure the welfare of the artisans from Kerala. Located around 42 kms away from the heart of Calicut city, it is easily accessible by bus and is frequented by a lot of visitors whose romanticism hasn’t suffered a premature death. Run by Uranlungal Labour Contract Society, it brings together artisans, painters, sculptors under one platform so as to facilitate them with stronger market linkages, better work conditions and higher bargaining power. Modelled in the lines of a residential community than a marketplace, the buildings of the village were a perfect blend of interactive visitor friendly spaces and workplaces that ensure focus for longer periods of time.
One of the first stalls that I decided to visit was that of Mr. A K Arun’s terracotta miniature sculptures. Mexican parrot, Golden Hornbill etc were so lifelike that one simply cannot stop admiring the endless talent, the sculptor possessed. Hailing from a village called Elimbinadu near Vadakara, Arun hasn’t allowed his bodily of being a mute to come in his way of putting 7-10 days of tenuous labour for completing a single sculpture.
Inspired by Arun’s determination and captivated by the extensive use of vibrant colours for bringing those avian species alive, I hesitantly moved on to the next stall to find dry flowers from Nagaland welcoming me with the enthusiasm that north-east people are famous for. There was Zara Thelma, the maker of these artificial flowers looking irritated because the village administration wouldn’t allow her to sell plastic bags to her clients. Her products were obviously too heavy for paper bags to contain. I wanted to know more about her products but decided against it, considering the bad mood she was in.
As I strolled through the corridors of adjoining stalls, I couldn’t help but to stare at a section full of exquisitely designed palm fibers products that were weaved, braided, knotted and crocheted into palm fiber strands as fine as human hair. It was the flexibility and strength that Palm fiber offered that helped artisans to create such elegant table mats, runners, files and wall hangings that prompted customers to buy them off. I came to know that every palm trunk that meets their quality requirement are processed by immersing it in the water, followed by the strenuous beating of the same to produce fiber of the highest quality.
For long, coir products have symbolized Kerala worker’s resurgence in an increasingly corporatised market space. Creating a niche market for its own, coir jewelry is the latest fad that picking up among both urban and rural women, helping them to create an ethnic aura around them and sending the onlookers, the message of a sustainable lifestyle. As I passed numerous women who were admiring their own good looks sporting the trendy coir jewelry, I stumbled upon yet another ornamental marvel in the form of seed jewelry made out of Rice, Manjadikuru, Thottavazha Kuru, Soppekaya. Exquisite finishing on the seed products was conveying the extreme levels of dedication, patience and hand-eye coordination that had gone in.
We all know screw pine (Kaitha) as mother plant of pineapple and far less people know it as a raw material for woven and hand embroidered mats and bags. The sight of female folk sitting together to cultivate precious pieces of art is satisfying social process in itself if one is not too interested in the finer aspects of jewelry. If one looks hard enough, we realize that we are witnessing poverty giving way to prosperity as water hyacinth fiber is warped, dyed and made to wind through yarn to create products that will stand out in any gallery. The craft village also seem to encourage the idea of using natural fibers over synthetic fiber such as showcasing products made out of mohair derived from angora goat and rabbit. The fact that fiber can be extracted from multiple sources such as from seed, trunk and leaves of the same plant underscores nature’s immense potential.
In the backdrop of the melodious music from the violin classes which are conducted in the village premises, I found glass fiber and bronze sculptures of Mrs. Sherin K Satheesh, (an upcoming sculptor), come to life and felt those statues to be communicating with me about how modern man have started to become more and more like a him, indifferent to situations that demanded a kind intervention.
The name NC Ayyappan is synonymous to excellence in the field of Kora grass weaving. In no time, I found myself to be speaking to him about scope and relevance of hand-woven products in an era, when alienation of handicrafts and artisans are taking palace at a faster rate than number of new facebook accounts being created in a given area. UNESCO seal of excellence given to Killimangalam Pulpaya made out of Kora grass are one of the few things to cheer about in otherwise languishing craft.
At the end of my visit, I realized that behind the business enterprise that Sargaalaya Arts and Crafts Village is, it stands for the protection of our tangible and intangible heritage. It’s unique architectural style that gives emphasis to the creation of interactive spaces and long corridors that reminds one of a bygone era adds to the overall experience of the visitor. As I bid goodbye to this temple of art, I realized the real deities of this place of worship are the human spirit and determination that has gone into the work, which we seem to have ignored somewhere along the way to the top.
As I had a final glace at the gallery through the window of my car, I could see Herbarium, Mural and Glass paintings in conversation with each other, polishing themselves up and getting ready to explore this big wide world trying to charm yet another enthusiast.