N. Vijayakumar fuses the traditional and contemporary in his chemically-etched wooden handicrafts

The floor of N. Vijayakumar's factory in Kurichi looks like one big jigsaw puzzle — finely-cut pieces of wood bearing numbers are all over the place. Only, the various bits fuse at some point to create a work of art that is so refreshingly different. What emerge are wall-mounted Ganeshas, a Kathakali dancer, the cross, the Om symbol, and finally his leitmotif, the naughty mouse Jerry!

Going natural

The craft is called chemical etching on wood, and there's nothing new about it. What is, is that Vijaya Kumar uses only natural wood, hues and all, and has brought in a third dimension to the artefacts, with layers and textures galore.

Today, he employs 13 people, all of them underprivileged and one physically-challenged too, and supplies artefacts to various State government emporia — Poompuhar (Tamil Nadu), Cauvery (Karnataka), Lepakshi (Andhra Pradesh) besides the legendary Victoria Technical Institute in Chennai. Since he holds a Government-issued artisan identity card, he also takes part in exhibitions across the country.

When N. Vijayakumar narrates how he got into chemical etching on wood, it all seems so serendipitous. Why else would a farmer with an artistic bent of mind who studied zoology start a shop dealing with wood to further the family's income. And then, discover that the grains and textures of wood beckoned the artist in him. So, he trained in this labour-intensive craft, learning to draw, cut, buff, etch, mount and varnish artefacts.

Once he set up shop with his wife Geetha, he brought about changes in the very craft and the way it was practised. Sri Krishna Wooden Arts doesn't really look like a workshop dealing extensively with wood. For one, there's no dust floating around. And, everyone looks like they are working in comfort. That's because he brought in a vacuum-operated dust collector, and customised machinery so that it can be operated even while one is seated. As for designs, he opted for figurines that would appeal to children — in came Jerry, in many poses. The bullying cat Tom followed suit. So did the mascot of the ICC Cricket World in 2007, Mello.

The best part of all is that all these artefacts are made of used wood. Packing material, native wood — everything is used judiciously to get the right finish. Vijayakumar has a catalogue of sorts, featuring 14 blocks of the wood he uses — the deep-grained coconut and palm, the dense tamarind, patak, eucalyptus, aayan, saayam, chavdaal, the rich-textured silver oak, vaagai...

“It is vital to understand the nature of each tree and use it accordingly. Can you believe that most of the wood I stock here is used as firewood by many?” says Vijayakumar, who uses his zoology background to get the anatomy of his figurines right. His elaborate 123-piece ardhanareeswarar, made using seven varieties of wood, is an example. Hold a paper to the left, and you see Shiva in all his manly glory; on the other side is a bashful Shakti.

His dream is to collect more native varieties of wood across the country and come up with a figurine that will encompass all — a tribute to India and her trees!

Contact him on 94434-78403 and 91508-06001.

Keywords: Poompuhar