Knots of IdentityLocation - Rajkot
Quaint huts welcome you as you step into Karaikudi, a little town tucked away in the region popularly referred to as Chettinad in Tamil Nadu.
The scape along the road is an expanse of green, sprinkled in abundance with peacocks that run amidst vegetation and coconut groves.
Each family in the area is born into one of the nine main temples of this region and wedding alliances are made between families of two different temples.
Palatial houses skirt the dusty roads and stand evidence of the wealthy Chettiars: traders and money lenders chiefly known for their accounting skills, who used to inhabit the area.
They travelled extensively and introduced a flavour of these places in their lavish homes- pillars from Burma, tiles from Japan, marble from Italy and Belgian mirrors. Their simple white shirt and veshti is a strong contrast to their ornate homes.
A handful of these mansions have been converted into heritage hotels or tourism spots and draw travelers from across the world to experience Chettinad culture in all it authenticity.
Some of the old mansions are maintained by care takers today and bring families together on special occasions and mostly weddings.
For the rest, though dilapidated, some of these mansions continue to be lived in, some are locked up and several lie abandoned. As the village quiets down before sunset, the town seems to belong to an era lost beyond time.
A walk further through Athangudi, one of the several villages here, reveals a visual treat: doors and floors are covered in a riot of colour, each equally enchanting.
The artistry in the village is seen on doors, floors and Chettinad furniture, and these are across all classes. The village is now most popular for the bespoke tile work that is one of its kind.
These special tiles crafted in the village of Athangudi are handmade in small factories with no more than two to four work stations each.
On prodding about the specialty, the artisans proudly tell you it is the local soil that makes a difference by helping maintain the perfect temperature irrespective of the season.
Apart from cement and the local soil, the mixture is coloured with synthetic oxide, all in proportions that are measured on intuition and mixed.
The artisan uses a variety of improvised brushes and brass moulds to create the desired patterns on the tiles. The frames are made with such precision that one color doesn’t bleed into the other.
Interestingly all the frames at the workshop seem to be have been made by only one man in Muthupattinam in Athangudi- Munnusami.
While his father would initially make frames of 8x8, Munnusami now makes 10 x10 frames. Even though it painstakingly takes him 10 days at times to complete a frame, it is a matter of great pride for him.
His son Manikam hasn’t taken after him and he seems unconcerned that there is no one to continue his work. He bends each piece of brass to accuracy till it flawlessly fits the drawing.
Each tile is set on a glass pane, and sometimes patterns are hand drawn or colours are filled in the patterns of the mould.
The inside of the frame is rubbed with oil before the glass pane is placed under it, the mould is set on the glass after which colours are poured with large ladles.
The frames are marked with colors to guide the artisan who then pours the coloured mixture with measured accuracy. Some of their designs are hand drawn hence no two tiles are completely identical, and therein lies its inherent charm.
A mixture of cement and mud are then scattered by an artisan to seal the design before it is cemented by his partner.
The tiles are customised to the client’s demand. The colors used are combinations of red, green, yellow, blue, white and black.
The tiles are stacked horizontally to dry for a day before they are immersed in water.
The tiles are immersed in water for about three days, where the water sets the cement after which they’re left to cure in the sun for a week.
The smaller 4x4 tiles are made specifically for visitors to carry back as souvenirs. The whole process takes ten days and is eco friendly as it requires no fuel consumption and relies purely on man power and skill.
The motifs are primarily floral or geometric. The ‘thalam' flower is said to have inspired this motif which is also seen woven in sarees from this region.
Men and women are both employed in the tile factories and produce unto 100 tiles a day.
A single pattern can form a variety of patterns across a large floor space depending on the way they are laid out. Masons are sent from Athangudi with the tiles to execute the laying to ensure the tiles are laid out in the right manner and pattern. Incorrect laying of these tiles cause them to crack.
These vibrant tiles bring alive any floor space, irrespective of whether it is a palace or the mismatched floor of a barbers shop.
Houses floors in mansions and cottages alike, reveal myriad glorious patterns. Moreover with people preferring to sit on the floors rather than chairs, it makes for all the more a reason to have elaborate ornate flooring. Like all good things, the Athangudi tiles gather shine with usage, the more they are used the newer they appear.
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