Artist D. Mala creates masterpieces out of straw

A handful of straw, a blade, and some adhesive — D. Mala has created a livelihood for herself with nothing but these. Among the very few straw craftspeople in the city, the 29-year-old creates intricate works of art from her two-roomed home in Ayanavaram.

With the blade in one hand and flattened strips of straw in the other, she ‘paints’ landscapes, gods, leaders, and everyday people — the straw is cut into tiny slices and pasted simultaneously onto a canvas.

Mala lost her ability to walk after a polio attack when she was three years old. With help from an NGO, she learned the craft from Sasidharan, an artisan from Kerala, 15 years ago. It came to her rescue when she was faced with the responsibility of supporting her family. “I’ve been displaying my works at exhibitions at Valluvar Kottam since December last year. Kind-hearted stall contractors Johnson and Parthipan have arranged free stalls for me,” she says.

With negligible support from family, Mala goes about her craft with precision and involvement — her intricate 20x14cm portraits of gods and freehand straw sketches are proof of this. These sketches measure 6x4 cm and are priced at Rs. 50. Her biggest portrait measured 5x4 feet; she worked on it non-stop for 15 days. She also does made-to-order portraits and wedding cards.

If used effectively, straw can make an excellent base for an artist. Mala says that Nature paints it beautifully in various shades of brown. “Straw from fresh paddy is white. It turns yellow when it’s a few days old. And when it gets wet in the rain, it takes on a deep brown hue. Then there are some that come embellished with greenish dots,” she explains. “Sometimes, they tend to turn orange-ish after many years.” She puts these shades to good use without adding artificial colours.

Why did she take to straw art? “It’s an unusual craft. Also, I reuse material that gets wasted; which makes my works eco-friendly.” Sadly, there are some who look down on her artworks on which she spent several hours — “Some people who visit my stall mockingly dismiss my creations as ‘just straw’,” she says. But she shrugs it off. “This is something I enjoy doing; what keeps me going is the acknowledgement of those who care to stop by and say, ‘You’re doing a good job’,” she smiles.

Mala wants to develop her craft into a small-scale business. “Some day, I hope to employ skilled artisans like me who struggle for recognition,” she adds. For, this could make all the difference to their lives.