"My favourite piece is the seven-stone diamond earring my grandfather taught me to make. We always used the closed setting,especially for diamonds, which preserved the shine"
Mohan Achary, goldsmith
In a quiet lane in Mylapore, P. Mohan Achary is seated on a floor mat. In front of him, a kumutti, anointed with sandal paste and kumkum, is filled with unhusked rice. In the middle is a small heap of coals glowing red and slowly turning to ash. “I’ve been a goldsmith for 35 years,” says the soft-spoken 50-year-old. “Everyday, after school, I would sit in my grandfather’s workshop, just two streets from here, and watch him as I did my homework.”
When he was 15, Mohan became his grandfather’s apprentice, doing odd jobs, before he graduated to the responsibility of making moulds for the seven-stone diamond earring. Eventually, he took over the business, and all his grandfather’s customers stayed on. “Of course, the younger generation today prefer readymade, lightweight jewellery,” he says.
Back in the 70s, the kuchi-segappu adigai, vaira-adigai, vaathu and mayil pendants were very popular. “People sought us out for our workmanship and stayed on because honesty and trust was our hallmark. Those days, when a thirumangalyam was ordered, they invited us home, called the whole family, and paid us the advance amount.” When Mohan started working, one sovereign or 8 gm of gold cost Rs.350-400. “Today, with soaring prices, people don’t even make oddiyanams (waist chains) anymore,” he laments.
Mohan shows me an old design book, filled with dramatic peacocks, snakes and tiger’s teeth. Pointing to a naakothu or armlet, he says, “This is now fashionable again and more affordable.”
Smiling as he recalls how he once went to customers’ houses to set diamonds, he describes how the golden moulds were made in the workshop but the actual diamond setting was always done at home under the sharp eyes of the family elders.
Mohan still uses his grandfather’s tools; his workshop is a time capsule, with saws and cutters hanging from the green wall, pliers and rods stacked on stools. “I walk in each morning, do a pooja, and then light the coal fire. It burns till I go home.” No gas or electricity to melt or solder gold, everything still done the old-fashioned way and with skilled hands. “I wonder if the trade will last,” wonders Mohan, with only 40 such workshops remaining in Mylapore. “My son opted to be a carpenter. You need to make a living after all!” And Mohan gets ready for the day, blowing on the coals.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)