The garland makers of Coimbatore are known far and wide for their workmanship. Akila Kannadasan gets a chance to watch them at work
It's a bigger version of the regular flower shop you find at street corners. You get a variety of flowers there, for a cheaper price. Flower sellers head there straight at dawn to shop for the day's goods. And yes, I get a whiff of jasmine every time I walk or ride past the place. That about sums it up. What else can one write about the Poo Market? Plenty, as I find out.
On a ruthlessly sunny morning, I jostle, huff and puff into the as usual crowded market. Inside, merchants squat by hillocks of marigolds, roses, and jasmine, calling out to passers-by in a sing-song voice (malli vela kammi, malli vela kammi); there is a constant clatter of weighing scales and the drone of haggling shoppers.
An intoxicating fragrance hangs in the air — even the best of technology cannot bottle that. But it's not just the fragrances. Sometimes there is a whiff of sweat as well. That is coming from where the garland makers work round the clock. “A garland from Coimbatore speaks for itself,” says G.Ravi, as he deftly strings a Gupta maalai. “Our expertise and workmanship is well-known.”
It's the flower market that has nurtured Ravi. Forty-one years old, he has been working here ever since he started helping around in his father's flower shop as a little boy.
He is now a master garland maker and is sought after by customers form other states and countries. Ravi says that he has been to the Chennai residence of the late Sivaji Ganesan to make garlands for his mother's picture.
“We were given a room and flowers to work with,” he says. “I saw Sivaji sir just once.”
There are codenames for garlands, explains Ravi “The common ones are the two feet Gupta maalai, the half feet saadha maalai, the kadai perusu with two borders of green and red and the VIP maalai. But to the customers, they are simply sammagi maalais,” he smiles.
Though Ravi says he is proud of his work, he vows not to let his children continue with this profession. “It's hard work. I've digestion and back problems, probably because I sit in one position from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. We barely make Rs.200 per day. Off-season, I earn even less.”
Creating a thing of beauty
But for A.K. Haneefa, it is the best job in the world. He has been making garlands for over two decades. “I love my job. I get to relax a few months a year and can be as creative as I wish. Work does get stressful at times, but I enjoy it. If my kids wish to follow suit, I will show them the way,” he says.
Haneefa and his team are working on a garland and jadai alangaaram set that's part of a special consignment to the USA. Made of golden champa rolled inside red rose petals and strung together, the garlands look gorgeous. The jadai alangaaram is quite long — the bride must have long hair, I wonder aloud. “No, no. This is for an Amman in America,” laughs Haneefa.
Strangely, the garland section of the market has very few women. “Making garlands is a man's job,” says Lakshmi. She runs a small flower shop in the city. “I can string flowers, that's all. I can't handle the heavy garlands.”
It's the men who produce the artistic garlands for deities, brides and grooms. Studded with stones, entwined with zari… artisans here can make garlands in any colour and pattern you wish for. Garlands have come a long way from the simple ‘roja maalais'. Says K.Arumugam, “Petal garlands that match the wedding trousseau are in these days. We have an extensive album that you can choose from.” Coimbatore's flower market has supplied garlands to several celebrity weddings, he adds.
From wizened old Valli who sells wild tulsi she handpicks herself, to young Siva, an aspiring foundry-worker who strings jasmine since he couldn't afford school, the market is a source of income for many people.
Sixty-year-old Paapathi and her friends sell twine made of banana fibres used to string flowers. Ask Paapathi if she finds her job unglamourous when compared to the flowers business and she snaps, “Without the naaru (fibre), there can be no maalai. What do you think holds it all together?”
Keywords: Coimbatore flower market