Master craftsman K.N. Shanmugham has spent a lifetime making papier-mâché idols and sharing his craft. He speaks to Subha J Rao about the joy of creating life-like figurines

Temple drums sound in the distance. Inside a stuffy 26x16 room near Sundarapuram, more than a hundred Krishnas take shape. Half of them are in vibrant blue; the rest are yet to take on the hues of God. Manju, the family’s cat, walks gingerly amid the unfinished idols, followed by seven-year-old Janani who effortlessly passes on idols her size to her grandfather, the man who created them all.

For more than 50 years now, K.N. Shanmugham has made thousands of idols from clay and papier-mâché. The 65-year-old artisan has also pioneered techniques that have reduced the time and effort taken to make them. The All India Handicrafts Marketing and Extension Centre, Salem, a Central Government enterprise, has conferred the title of master craftsman on him; it also arranges for him to train other artisans. More recently, the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited (Poompuhar) chose him for the 2011-2012 District Handicrafts Award.

As a child, Shanmugham saw his father and grandfather work the potter’s wheel in their native village of Keerapalayam near Chidambaram. They would mould the yielding clay into beautiful lamps and clay figurines, pots and earthenware. When he was 10, he moved to the “big city” of Madras to apprentice under a famous artist, Kumaragurudasa Pillai.

Life changed drastically. He was taught the Sirpa Sastram and told to shun meat. And so, the little boy who grew up eating fish swapped it for the opportunity to create idols with lively eyes and naughty smiles. “It all seems like yesterday. How much my guru taught me! I owe everything to him,” says Shanmugham, even as he prepares to give Krishna a waistband in dull gold.

Shanmugham originally worked with clay. Everything took effort — from creating to carrying the heavy idols around for selling. Then, during a chance training session, he learnt about making dolls using wood and paper powders. That was the beginning of his tryst with papier-mâché. “It called for little investment, was easy to carry around and it allowed me to mass produce dolls,” he recalls. It also allowed him to showcase intricate details. He moved back to Chidambaram and perfected the art, experimenting with combinations, till he produced light-weight yet durable dolls that looked fetching. Probably why, during most Kolu exhibitions, people veer towards his sky-blue Krishnas, despite the premium price. The sparkling eyes are, apparently, Shanmugham’s trademark. “My guru’s gift,” says Shanmugham.

The craftsman moved to Coimbatore in 1970 as a strapping youth of 22, because he heard that people here encouraged entrepreneurs. He started working near Sivalaya theatre, before moving near Sundarapuram. At first, it was difficult to get people to accept papier-mâché dolls, but he persisted. “They would ask, ‘How is it possible to make a doll using just paper powder?’; ‘Will it last’” Now, it delights me when people specifically ask for papier-mâché.”

Perfect proportions

He simultaneously worked on perfecting the original moulds from which copies were made. “Whether it is a 40-inch tall statue or a four-inch one, the proportions must always be right,” he says. Today, Shanmugham’s works have travelled across the country, some even abroad. The artist also makes artefacts and statues of famous personalities.

Helping him are his wife Jnanam, daughters Jhansi Rani and Amararekha and daughter-in-law Vijayalakshmi. Another long-time helper, Vijayalakshmi, started working with him as a young girl. Today, he’s proud of her ability to turn out perfectly shaped dolls.

But, there’s one thing Shanmugham refuses to delegate — painting the eyes. “Eyes lend life to an idol. When I paint the eyes, I am in a different plane. I tear up, marvelling at the beauty of a creation. In a way, it is like giving life to the very person who made you!”

Passing on a craft

Thirty craftsmen in Palakkad and their families owe their livelihood to Shanmugham who taught them everything about papier-mâché. The District Rural Development Agency has got him to train many people. So have other organisations. He has so far trained more than 800 artisans across the country. “What I like most about papier-mâché is that you can earn a living without hurting anyone. You don’t kill; you don’t maim. You just create works of beauty.”

Contact him at 80565-89167.