Few families in Nagamalai Pudukottai keep alive an occupation

Blacksmithing is one of the last vestiges of caste-based hereditary occupations. It is practiced by a few families at Nagamalai Pudukottai on the Madurai-Theni highway. They make tools for agriculture and construction purposes.

Their spades, hoes, picks and trowels attract customers from all over south Tamil Nadu. S. Krishnamoorthy (50) and his wife Chithra (45) belong to the fourth generation of a family of blacksmiths. Their relatives, Pon Muthiah Asari and Kasi, have their workshops nearby.

Chithra’s father, Muthuramalingam Asari, who passed away six months ago at the age of 95, was actively involved in the blacksmithing work till his death. He was the one who passed on the skills to these people. Their customer base is strong in places such as Theni, Sivakasi and Virudhunagar.

Integral part of village economy

Muthuramalingam Asari’s ancestors, who lived at Kovilankulam near Karumathur, were brought to Nagamalai Pudukottai by Chinnakannu Servai’s family as the village did not have a blacksmith then. “It was part of the system to have various service castes within a village, and we were given land to stay and thus have remained here for the past 100 years,” says Lakshmi (70), wife of Muthuramalingam.

Though the blacksmiths traditionally — within the Hindu hierarchy — did not have power over land, they were the ones who made all agricultural tools such as hoes, spades, plough tips and picks, the mainstay of the village economy.

Mr. Krishnamoorthy said that the unique selling proposition of his hoes and spades was the quality. “I procure metal scrap of abandoned railway coaches in Dindigul. The metal sheets are cut and shaped to make quality products.” The wooden handles of the spades, hoes and trowels are also made at his workshop.

He makes swan-neck spade with wooden handle, tanged spade, mason trowels, small trowels and pickaxes. Spades are most sought after by his customers, said his wife Chithra. “Spades and hoes used for construction are more in demand than the ones used for agriculture,” she said.

One of the interesting features of the production process is the role played by women. They help in blowing the furnace and occasionally hold the hammer while the metal is beaten and shaped on the anvil.

“Spades used for agricultural purpose do not have demand throughout the year. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, which covers work related to digging and deepening tanks, did not result in demand going up for spades,” she rued.

Mr. Pon Muthaiah said, “Most of the construction workers in and around Madurai buy spades from us. We get a profit of Rs. 50 if we sell a hoe for Rs. 150 and Rs. 75 for an agriculture spade priced at Rs. 250.”

No to hereditary occupation

Mr. Krishnamoorthy, who studied at the Industrial Training Institute, said that he was not interested in expanding or diversifying his business. He is content to earn enough to run his family. He once got orders from Seed Department and Agricultural Institute for supplying equipment. There is no support from the government agencies.

The advent of tipper lorries and earthmovers has resulted in decrease in demand for hoes. Six men used to carry a hoe each to unload sand from a lorry. Now a single person with a hoe can complete the work, he said.

None of the family members of the blacksmiths want their next generation to continue in this profession. The Generation Next is already on the move towards caste-neutral forms of work and has taken to academics and modern forms of engineering.