Abandoned antiques get a new avatar with K. Shanmuga Sundaram. He tells us how he went from being a businessman to a designer

Fine wood dust and the smell of varnish fill the air of a little workshop in P&T Colony near Kavundampalayam. Boat-shaped wooden loom shuttles pile up in a corner. Elsewhere, a mridangam shares space with damaged carved pillars. A small nandi with a hollowed-out centre sits on a cot; it still carries the fragrance of the vibhuti it once held. Beneath their dusty surface, they still carry traces of their former sheen.

All of them wait for K. Shanmuga Sundaram, 57, to give them a new identity.

Thirteen years ago, he was a struggler. His varied businesses had failed. He lived in a small tiled house with his wife Geetha and two children. Very often, he did not know where his next meal was coming from.

Today, the self-taught designer’s house can be sighted from afar — everyone looks in awe at the wooden carvings that frame every window, the elaborate jaali embedded on the compound wall, the majestic pillars at the entrance and the intricate door. His customers range from the bachelor down the street to business families across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

Shanmuga Sundaram says the idea for his antique work was born when he and Geetha undertook a trip to Bangalore. “My last business had failed and we wanted to explore selling garments. We were told that Bangalore is a great place to buy clothes at wholesale prices. While walking down some streets, I saw how people had decorated homes with old articles. That got me thinking. The garment business never took off, but I started doing the rounds of antique dealers though I knew nothing about the profession. I just had a gut feeling this would work,” he recalls.

Even as a child, Shanmuga Sundaram was drawn towards art and craft. He would doodle and create new designs. But, he had a difficult childhood. His father died early and he was forced to discontinue his SSLC. He worked in a hardware shop, sold industrial belts… and even ran a second-hand electrical shop. That was the only business where he saw some money. “I felt bad making money out of other’s misery. All of them sold things because they needed money.”

It was in antiques that Shanmuga Sundaram finally found peace. His first creation was a thottil (Rs. 150) that he reworked as a swing. He sold it for Rs. 1,250. “From that day till now, antiques have nourished me. From an oattu veedu, I moved to this three-storey house. I put my children through post-graduation,” he says.

Right now, he’s working on two divans with carved legs and an elaborate cot with a six-foot headstand fit for kings. “I’ve taken bits from about eight articles (including a door, a cot and a rosewood nelavu) and used three types of wood — teak, rose wood and pala — to create this headstand,” he explains. Inside the workshop, two old men scrape away years of neglect from carved pieces — they will go on to decorate the divans.

Impromptu ideas

How does Shanmuga Sundaram zero in on what to create? “When I visit dealers to source artefacts, I feel a pull. I visualise a cot as something else. A carved thanni saalani (a stand used to hold a pot) resembles a frame for a Tanjore painting, a nelavu takes on the shape of a photo or mirror frame. I then buy them and get working right away,” he says. But, some pieces — pillars, hand-carved flowers and thayir mathus — lie in a corner for years, waiting for that burst of inspiration that will transform them.

As we speak, he points out to a row of square-shaped boxes on the wall — erstwhile clocks, they now hold bric-a-brac.

But, there are some rules he has. Very few things are sold in the same shape he finds them in. He always recycles doors. His logic? “It is the remnant of a house destroyed. Why use the same thing as the entrance to your abode?” Sometimes, he fashions a brand new door out of different pieces.

He also visits houses and suggests areas where his designs can lend value. Many balconies have taken on traditional hues with wooden oonjals with brass inlay work and carved pillars. Some restaurants and hotels have benefited from his ability to source unusual artefacts. He is fond of designing wooden puja corners. His low-slung chairs, seer pettis and kalyana palagais are a huge hit too.

Shanmuga Sundaram stops with designing; the work is executed by his staff. “There was a time when I could not even identify the wood. I’ve paid for teak and received ordinary wood. Now, I can tell the variety of wood by looking at just a single wisp of wood shaving,” he smiles.

Difficult customers who haggle over prices and delay payments have been a constant in all his businesses. “After a point, I let it be. I want customers to go home smiling. Most do. They even become friends,” he says.

It helps that he gives every customer a small takeaway gift he’s created — small platforms to keep lamps on, wooden flowers that can enliven any room or small hand-crafted panels.

As we leave, he points out to what looks like a heap of wooden leftovers. “That’s my next gift idea. Come after a week and you can see it,” he says.

Contact him on: 98422-47496.