Handicrafts are a great tradition in our country and every region has something unique on offer. These have been beautifully described in an exhaustive book Handmade in India, by two NID, Ahmedabad Professors. My recent sojourn through Tamilnadu took me to Thanjavur and Karaikuri. Thanjavur is rich in handicraft traditions, being famous for the wooden Tanjore doll, (the one which shakes all over, if touched), bronze statuary (which they have been making since the Chola times), bell metal lamps, art plates and of course the well recognized Thanjavur painting.
The Tanjore doll, which adorns the front of many South Indian restaurants held no attraction. Neither did the brass statuary or lamps, which I already had at home. So after the visit to the temples and other sites, we made it to a recommended Thanjavur painting center. Mr Ganesh of the Balaji Arts and Crafts was a pleasant young man, and his family has been in the business for a long time. He has a centrally located studio with good display. Traditionally Thanjavur paintings have been of a restricted range of Hindu Gods – Krishna in various poses (young and with his wives) and of Laxmi/Saraswati. However, in order to appeal to a wider range of customer, many new figures have been introduces – of Balaji (very popular I was told), Ravi Verma copies, and even of horses and elephants (for non-Hindu customers). This made good business sense.
The whole painting is not done by one worker, as was traditional. The good artist, makes the outline, followed by the major coloring by a less skilled artist, and then the intricate work by a third artist. The profit margins are not large, but Ganesh seemed satisfied with his business. I started by looking for a 10″ X 12″ or 12″ X 15″ Bal Krishna painting and was asking him if he could take it out of its frame for easy transport – and ended up buying a 20″X 16″ one on the same theme, with an antique frame for 8 grand. He shipped it free and it was with me at Gurgaon in 3 days. The same would sell for double the prize here – so the middle men are doing well. The artists who do the work probably get very little!! Ganesh was also concerned about the many outsiders (mostly Kashmiris), who were setting up shop in Thanjavur and under cutting the locals.
I had not heard of ‘Athangudi tiles’ before I started to read up about Karaikudi, prior to this trip. And I am glad we made the effort to go and see the tiles being made at the village of Atanhgudi. These are hand made tiles, with a team of two working together. Cement is filled into a frame, a glass piece is placed, the design mould placed on top of that and then a special type of color is poured to create the pattern. Sand is overlaid to dry the paint, and the whole contraption is allowed to dry for 3-4 days. Then it is put into water and the tile is pulled off and finished.
This particular factory makes 1500 tiles a day – they sell at Rs 50/each singly and Rs 25/ in bulk sales. There are a large number of units in this village – something to do with the mud quality, I was told. All the workers are local, and these workers were a happy lot- they are paid Rs500/ daily wage. So, I am presuming that the profit margins are good and this craft will survive.
Handicrafts, by their very nature, are products that cannot move onto the economy of scale. The balance between a marketable price and the actual cost has to be more realistic – with a better way to compensate the actual producer of the hand made craft. Otherwise, the attrition of skills will continue – and we will be the losers for it.