A hands-on workshop revealed the practical magic of Athangudi tiles

In Chokkalingampudur, the owner of Athangudi Palace Tiles, G.Subramanian has been making Athangudi tiles for over three decades. De Artisan a team of three conservation architects, Saritha Varadan, Divya Chakravarti and Arva Firoz invited his artisans over to Chennai. Hosted by Dakshina Chitra, this wonderful tile workshop brought an age-old process alive in a shaded arbour of trees to twelve participants.

See photos above for the step-by-step demonstration as done at the workshop

A traditional process

The handmade Athangudi tiles of Chettinad are a unique and sophisticated expression of culture and trade. The smooth-edged stencil, which produces the final floral or geometric pattern, is made of pithalai. In earlier times, the welding of parts for the stencil was done in silver, the metal being lighter and giving fine concise welds. Crafting the precise stencil is highly specialised and restricted to about three artisans in the area, as revered as goldsmiths. The stencil, which can cost anywhere from eight to ten thousand, lasts a lifetime. G.Subramaniam brought his father’s stencil made in 1950 for the workshop.

There is no single formula to this traditional craft passed over generations from older to younger hands. Making tiles can be a ten-step process or a twenty step one. Sand, white cement, fine clay and oxides are premixed and churned for 20 minutes for a fine dry mix. Water is added to achieve a smooth consistency. Each tile is individually cast on glass to ensure silky smoothness. While the traditional tile-maker swears by the local clay, ultimately it is the artisan’s hands that seal the pact.

The stencil of a floral or geometric pattern is placed on a glass plate of the same size as the tile, within a metal frame with handles. We watch Alagan from Athangudi deftly pour coloured mixes into each receptacle of the stencil like a baker pouring batter into a tray. The artisan makes it look as simple as making an upside down cake, but it takes skilled expertise, a tactile understanding of materials and quick response at every step. After a few minutes of setting, the mould is whisked out, leaving the colourful pattern on the glass. Onto this layer, which will eventually be the tile top, a dry mix of sand and cement is applied and kept aside. Next, wet sand and cement mixture of a thick consistency is filled in and compacted. After setting, the tile is removed for drying with the glass plate for about 24 hours. Finally, tiles are stacked and kept in a bath of water. Just as good cheese sits in a cellar and ripens, the tiles cure in water for 8 to 12 days. When they are ready, the tiles should slip away from the glass naturally. Finished tiles are dried out with husk laid over them to soak the excess moisture. The innate oils from the husk impart a lovely sheen.

Athangudi tiles are durable, cheaper than regular tiles and can be made in exotic patterns or plain. Standard colours used are red, mustard, green and grey. These tiles are not fired or baked and therefore do not require any powering or fuel. Coconut oil can be use for polishing over the years.

Vitalising the industry

We have a readymade ecologically friendly solution making tiles. The challenges today are to find ways to aid research and market this unique handmade production. The De Artisan team is enthusiastic about encouraging new start-ups and sustaining the local industry in Chettinad. Conservation architect Divya Chakravarti notes, “The majority of families involved with making Athangudi tiles depend on this activity for their livelihood. A tile artisan typically makes 65 to 70 tiles a day. Subramaniam’s factory can produce about 1,500 sq. ft of tiles a day.” As the tiles are heavy, with design of proper packaging, breakage can be reduced during transport. While the cost of transportation from Athangudi seems prohibitive, the tile costs inclusive of laying is lesser than quality vitrified or ceramic tiles. These tiles offer a burst of the exotic in a corridor, puja room or main living area, a piece of cultural heritage that can be easily brought home.

For enquiries contact deartisanworkshop@gmail.com