An eight-feet Ganesha with intricate carvings towers over finely chiselled wooden figures that are scattered over a work shed where artisans chisel and chop. Skilled at carving figurines out of a single block of wood, they strive to keep their cherished legacy of wood carving alive.

For more than a century, these villagers and their forefathers from Arumbavur and Thazhuthalai, remote villages in Perambalur, have cast Gods and Goddesses in wood. The art of wood carving that has been passed down through the generations as a family tradition has become a way of living for almost 150 families in the village.

Hereditary profession

For Mathiazhagan, wood carving has been his bread and butter from adolescence, just as it had for his father and currently for his son.

“When the boys are fifteen, they join as apprentices under one of the master artisans,” says C. Sukumar, a chief artisan at Arumbavur.

But many of the young brood have taken up higher education as an option, including Mathiazhagan's own children pursuing engineering in city colleges.

Yet, Mr.Sukumar, like his peers, sees no threat to the art. “There are enough to keep the art alive.

At least one member in each family has taken up wood carving.”

The idols and figures are basically made of three types of wood including a special type of wood called Poovagai. “For three generations, we have used the Poovagai wood as the tree is believed to have special properties. The leaves fold up at night, giving the impression of a sleeping tree. The wood though soft and pliable, is strong and weathers all conditions,” says P.Murugesan, chief artisan and a stalwart with 40 years of experience.

The wood is sparsely available in the vicinity of Perambalur due to reduction in green cover owing to expansion of highways, but can be found in the Thanjavur-Kumbakonam belt.

The artisans use traditional instruments like gouges for carving and believe there is no place for machines in the work.

“Earlier, one piece was done by a single artisan who knew the complete process. Today, we have at least five artisans working on a single piece- from sizing the wood, chiselling, carving the jewellery and sculpting the face, which requires greater skill,” points out Mr.Murugesan.

Some of the artisans have formed a self-help group, which provide financial assistance through loans.

Earning a living

While most of the artisans work on a wage basis, the experienced ones earn per piece. One piece costs anywhere between Rs.1,500 to 30,000.

Women are also involved in the business, though they confine to polishing and applying varnish. The sustainability of the art can be attributed to its success in adapting to contemporary demands and tastes.

The artisans, who earlier thrived on building temple chariots, today cater to homes, offices and chiefly hotels with other works of art.

The handicraft exhibitions organized by the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Association also provide a marketing avenue for the artisans.