The traditional craft of shipbuilding has all but died out in the State. Beypore in Kozhikode and Valapattanam in Kannur are the few places in the State where it is still kept alive, according to Balagopal T.S. Prabhu, former professor of architecture and engineering at NIT, Kozhikode.
Craftsmen in Beypore still make three of four ships a year using traditional methods, said Dr. Prabhu. He was speaking on the sidelines of ‘Vastuvidya 2013’, a convention on traditional architecture and technology. Beypore craftsmen get orders from the Gulf countries for ships built using wood in the traditional style. The conventional shipbuilding industry, however, is now being run in a haphazard manner.
On receiving an order, shipbuilding agents hire about 60 craftsmen from nearby areas. They are taken to an island where they work for six to nine months to build the ship. The clients then tow the ship to their country and fit it with engines and make other additions.
The traditional shipbuilding designs have been modified by the craftsmen here according to new technology, says Dr. Prabhu. “When propeller technology came in, the craftsmen here added a curved piece of wood to the keel to accommodate the propeller and ships are now built in this model,” he says.
It is innovation that sets a living craft apart from a dead one, said A. Achyuthan, director of Vastupratisthanam. “Traditional shipbuilding knowledge will die with this generation,” said Dr. Achyuthan. “It was an evolutionary craft till about the 16 century. It has now become stagnant.” Traditional craftsmen who do not find jobs in the sector are also forced into making small models for tourists to take home as souvenirs. Vastupratisthanam is trying to bridge the gap between traditional craft and modern technical knowledge, according to Dr. Prabhu. “Traditional craftsmen build these huge ships without even drawing a design on paper. But they cannot pass on the skill to engineering students because they don’t have diplomas,” he said.
Vastupratisthanam has worked with traditional craftsmen to produce engineer’s drawings of conventional boat designs. They have also suggested the setting up of an Institute of Heritage Technology to rejuvenate the skills and to bring shipbuilders into the mainstream. Such an institute had been set up in Beypore, but was shut down after about a year for various reasons.
Dr. Prabhu also suggests that a course on traditional shipbuilding could be offered as an elective in engineering and architecture courses.
“The craft shouldn’t be preserved a just a relic for tourists. The real craft should be taught to students so they understand the reason for design development,” he said.