Suresh K.’s muse is Kathakali. The artiste chisels replicas of the characters on the Kathakali stage

While some bring characters to life on stage, Suresh K. brings mythological characters to life with pieces of wood.

Suresh is perhaps the only person in the state who is in the field of sculpting and carving Pacha, Kathi, Thaadi, Kari and Minukku characters in Kathakali.

It all began when Suresh and a relative of his, B. Thrivikraman were approached by an official in the Kerala State Handicrafts Development Corporation. The official wanted them to supply Kathakali figurines to the handicraft shops of the state as their previous craftsman had retired.

“Thrivikraman’s father, Bhaskaran Shasthrikal, was a Kathakali artiste. He was part of a Kathakali troupe in the city called Karikkakom Kathakali Yogam. From him, we learnt to love and appreciate the art form. My maternal side of the family are craftsmen and I learnt the trade from them. Thrivikraman helped me fine tune my skills after I completed my SSLC. We used to make handicrafts out of sandalwood. A Chutti artiste and a chenda artiste, he is currently concentrating in those fields,” says Suresh.

Suresh’s day begins at the break of dawn when he steps into his little work studio beside his house at Karikkakom. Inside his studio is his workbench where he chisels replicas of the characters on the Kathakali stage.

The artiste is currently busy chiselling figurines of Krishna for the upcoming Onam season. “I have been commissioned by the SMSM Institute to create Kathakali sculptures in time for Onam. In fact, I have been making such figurines for them since 1992.”

Krishna, he says, is the easiest figurine to make. Figurines of Krishna are in demand and so are those of Bhima. “The toughest to make are the Kathi and Thadi (red) veshams as there are a lot of fine details in their chutti make up. Coming from the world of Kathakali, I can do justice to the sculptures as I can bring the right expression on the faces of the wooden statues. As each character has a varied temperament, I have to show it in the eyes,” says Suresh, who makes figures in various sizes, the smallest being 18 inch and the largest, around six feet tall.

While Suresh carves and paints the heroes and heroines of Kathakali, his sister-in-law Sheila J. Kumari helps him clothe the figures. His wife, Pushpa, occasionally helps with the stitching too. The sculptures, he says is complete only when the headgear, arm bands and waist belts are adorned.

However, chiselling out the figurines is no piece of cake says Suresh. “It requires an enormous amount of patience, something the younger generation lacks. Although several artistes have come asking to be taught, none have remained. And that is why the art of making Kathakali figurines will die. Gen X want a profession that will not eat much of their time, does not require much dedication…They also want something which will bring them a decent income, something this field will not guarantee.”

Although there is a lot of fine craftsmanship that goes into each Kathakali figure, Suresh says the remuneration is barely enough. And although he has been approached by various dealers from India and abroad, Suresh prefers supplying to various handicraft institutes in the city. “The dealers want large supplies within a short period of time and I can’t do so as I am only one man and can only do so much. Earlier, my son, Anish used to help out. His love is however, photography and is now employed in Sharjah,” says the 52-year-old as he picks up a figurine and goes back to work.