A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is
V. Perumal is sitting under a huge poster of MGR; with practised fingers, he takes a ball of clay and presses it into a mould; a minute later, a baby Krishna emerges. “I have an order for 1,000 Baby Krishnas. Can we talk as I work?” he asks, dusting powder on the mould, readying it for the next one.
So, seated in his tidy little house in Kosapet, I listen to Perumal’s story. “My father was a potter. He made mud pots and pickle jars on the wheel. I learnt the art by assisting him; I also accompanied him when he went to Sathya Studios, AVM and Vijaya-Vauhini to assist in the movie sets. I’ve helped make the jewels and gold coins for Alibaba and 40 Thieves; it was all clay, painted gold!”
I ask if he’s seen MGR. “Seen? I’ve spoken to him! I’ve walked with him! Every morning, I light camphor before his picture,” he says.
Perumal’s day begins with kneading clay. He buys it by the lorry-load (for Rs. 2,000), sprinkles water on the portion he requires, spreads it on a sack and works it with his leg. “The clay has to be kneaded smooth; only then will the finer details – like the nose – stand out clearly.”
Clay from some areas, he says, is naturally better in texture. “Cuddalore mannu is very good. I work with it often, when I go to visit my daughters. Three of them live there. They make dolls too, just like the two who live in Chennai.” His five daughters – all of them married – have completed 10/12th Standard, says Perumal.
Doll-making involves more than just pressing clay into moulds, Perumal says. “You need to clean the excess clay, dry it in the sun and fire it in the kiln. Then, the dolls are painted by hand. See this Pillaiyar?”, he points to a two-ft idol, with a peaceful expression. “I painted that. Nowadays, we use enamel and metallic paints; gold paint and varnish are available in tins. But earlier, varnish was made by boiling together kungiliyam (resin) and kerosene. It was a volatile mixture, but the effect was very good. How many youngsters even know of kungiliyam now?” wonders the 62-year-old.
In his father’s time, Perumal recalls people coming home and buying up entire lots. But the demand for dolls, he says, has steadily dropped. With prices increasing, people who would’ve bought five, stop with two. Perumal, however, keeps himself busy with individual and bulk orders. “Schools give me work; one wanted a class-room set; another wanted a gopuram. I can make all that freehand,” he says.
Covering the Baby Krishnas with an old cloth – to keep them from drying - Perumal tells me he only studied till Class 6; today, his grand-children are keen to be educated. “Even here, in Kosapet, only about 20 families are still involved in doll-making. The next generation is happy to take up other jobs; one boy, I’ve heard, makes Rs. 1.5 lakhs abroad!”
But for Perumal, working with clay is more than just a way of life. “You know, when I got married, nobody in my wife’s hometown knew how to make dolls. I taught them; many are now self-employed. It’s this clay that built my house, helped me raise five daughters and still feeds all of us.”