Sadacharam clearly remembers his first salary — a daily wage of six annas. “I was only seven years old then, but I had to work to support my big family.” In those days, a carpenter’s assistant had to plane the wood by hand — hard labour, on a near-empty stomach. “Eating three meals a day was very difficult ma,” he tells me, with old-fashioned politeness, regarding his old-fashioned carpentry.
Born in Manthoppu village, Virudhunagar, Sadacharam is a third-generation carpenter. “My grandfather was a wood sculptor, and was well-known for a radius of 100 miles. My father, though, only made the ‘kalappai’ (wooden plough).” With little income, and twelve children to feed, Sadacharam — one of the older sons — was sent not to school, but to work. And by the time he was 15, he was a full-time carpenter.
“Things got better when I was 16,” Sadacharam tells me, sitting in his client’s house in Alwarpet. “I started working overtime, especially in the nights, so that I brought in some extra money.” His daily wage then had risen to a princely Rs. 3.25 per day. Soon, work took him to Madurai, and from there, to Chennai. For eight years, he was an apprentice, after which he got his first job order — interior work for a hotel, at Rs. 5 per day. “And today, my wage is Rs. 700 per day,” says the 73-year-old, “and I pay my assistants Rs. 450 per day.”
In the 66 years it took for his wages to rise from 6 annas to Rs. 700, much had changed in carpentry. “I saw plywood for the first time in 1958. We used it for an exhibition in Madurai Meenakshiamman temple. Until then, we only worked with solid wood.” Now, plywood is ubiquitous; and so is the ‘kambi aani’ (iron nail). “In Virudhunagar, it was only wooden nails and screws. Kambi aani became famous only after plywood came.” In the midst of all these changes, some things, Sadacharam guarantees, remain the same: like the traditional method of making and sizing front doors and frames. “It is called vaasalkaal, isn’t it? So, ideally, the measurement should end in a ‘kaal’ (1/4). I recommend 3.25 or 4.25 feet. Similarly, I always use the wood upright… the root portion below, and the branches upwards.”
Sadacharam also prefers the same materials that his grandfather used. “I like working with teak and rosewood; it lasts for generations, and we can reuse even 400-year-old Burma teak. It might not be as strong as new wood, but it looks so nice!” Like his grandfather, he too is an ace carver, and he shows me a huge front door he had hand-carved. “But prices have risen sharply. I remember buying teak for Rs. 250/cmt in 1978. Now, it’s as much as Rs. 3,800!”
While wood and work is available in plenty, labour is somewhat a problem, explains Sadacharam. “In Tamil Nadu, not many seem interested to take up carpentry, including my two sons — one works with computers, and another is a wholesale dealer for rice.” Sadacharam also has two married daughters, and one is currently working on her Ph.D. “The next generation will also not have the patience… I still report to work on time, even if it’s 7 a.m. That’s my work ethic.” As for the shortfall of labour, it is, Sadacharam explains, filled by migrants. “They’re hard working and are good in plywood/cupboard work. I speak only a little Hindi, but we manage to communicate.”
Sadacharam now lives in Pallikaranai, where he had bought land and built a house in 1984. “I have also bought some land to fund my grandson’s education. He wants to study medicine,” he says, with the happy, satisfied smile of a man who couldn’t go to school, because he had to feed his brothers and sisters…
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)