Parameswaran Asari is one of the many independent goldsmiths in the city stoking the embers of a glorious tradition of craftsmanship. His small one-room shop-cum-workplace at Vanchiyoor has none of the glitter or the shine of the big jewellers in the city. Surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade, Parameswaran sits all alone in his shop, the last link of a family that thrived on their craft and fine skills.
“I have my clients and they still come to me for making traditional ornaments and for duplicating intricate patterns seen in glossy magazines and catalogues. I still have the moulds and everything I make is handmade,” says Parameswaran, who learnt his craft from his father. It is the trust of his faithful customers that keeps him busy.
The 68-year-old has been working at this place for 49 years. Many prominent families in the locality, whose names he reels off, used to approach him for making ornaments for different occasions. Known as ‘Travancore jewellery’, Palaka mala, Lekshmy kashu, Elakka thali and Nagavadam, Mullamottu and so on are some of the pieces he makes. Showing an exquisite pearl necklace with a jade pendant, he says that for him it is the workmanship that matters – traditional or contemporary. “Each part in this contemporary piece is crafted from scratch and because my place lacks the frills of the big showrooms, it is cheaper. So I don’t lack customers,” insists Parameswaran, carefully replacing the piece in an antique safe that has seen better days.
Questions about the safe are answered with a smile and a glint in his eye. Taking out a key, he opens it to reveal yet another locked cupboard with painted pictures of Lakshmi and Saraswathi, the Goddesses of wealth and knowledge. The safe that was bought from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu has two keys – one to open and one to lock. “In our parlance this is called a ‘ozhikkara petty’ but it is actually a heavy iron safe. Not very easy to move around,” says Parameswaran.
He says his grandfather Manickam Mestri was much in demand in royal households for judging and assessing the value of gems. “We have been told that our forefathers came from Tamil Nadu when the temple of Sree Padmanabha Swamy was still being built. Each community of artisans was allotted a place and many of us stayed at Kaithamukku. The temple devoted to Amman there is proof of our long association with the place,” he says.
But the winds of change have not been kind to the independent goldsmith. One of his two sons owes a shop in Chalai selling ornament but he is not a goldsmith. “I went to school in Fort High School and I learnt the craft from my father. But when it came to my sons, I was not keen that they learn it because I doubt if that alone will help them earn their livelihood,” admits Parameswaran. His assistant moonlights as a painter when there is no work at the shop. It earns him Rs. 700 every day. “I can’t afford to pay him so much though the work he does is so skilled,” points out Parameswaran.
He is disappointed that the government has not taken the initiative to train youngsters in this ancient craft of India. “I have not heard of any training institutes to train goldsmiths. As far I know, it still has to be learnt in the old fashioned way by working with a veteran. One has to know how to gauge gems and how it should be placed in ornaments,” he says.
In the meantime, Parameswaran places charcoal carefully in a copper bowl filled with rice husk, lights the charcoal and blows it to make a strong fire. Rain or shine… he has to keep the fire burning.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)