On the eve of Karthigai Deepam, Asha Sridhar explores Thiruneermalai, where families make the clay lamps and pots that light up the city
Over the last few decades, the façade of Krishnan’s house in Thiruneermalai has undergone several alterations and modifications.
But one thing that has remained constant for over five generations in his house is the potter’s wheel. Beginning a month before Karthigai Deepam, the festival of lamps, he and his 26-year-old son Sathiamoorthy spin the wheel — both electric and hand-spun — to make, by Krishnan’s modest estimates, “at least 40,000 lamps”.
Though they have their share of woes such as a rise in prices of raw materials and difficulty in sourcing soil, which their forefathers used to pick up for free, what has them baffled is how to deal with the shortage of manpower to cater to the huge demand. Carefully treading past lamps which have been left to dry in his yard, Krishnan considers himself lucky that one of his sons willingly agreed to get his hands muddy to pursue this craft.
Living at the foot of Ranganathar Perumal Temple in Thiruneermalai, the few families that continue to make lamps for a living, according to Krishnan, have been making not just clay lamps but also pots and utensils at least for the past four or five generations.
“Look,” says Sathiamoorthy, and without warning, drops a freshly-baked clay lamp. “A lamp of good quality will not break, and can last for years,” he demonstrates and rapidly gets back behind the electric wheel which is essentially a grinder modified into a potter’s wheel. This, he says can only be used to make lamps. The pots and utensils have to be made with the hand-spun wheel, which his father turns.
Unlike his neighbour, 55-year old G. Annamalai, who used to work in a cotton mill till he was almost 30 years old, only learnt to make small items like lamps from his father, V. Ganesan. “I make around 1,000 lamps everyday, and that keeps me busy,” he says explaining the elaborate procedure involved. He sells most of what he makes in his immediate neighbourhood, as he feels that those in the city increasingly prefer fancy machine-made lamps which come in various designs and colours.
Starting their day early, they work until sundown, with the only interruption being the power cuts. Their unanimous lament is that this is a seasonal profession, as few items can be made during the monsoons. These lamps cannot be made ahead of the festival and stored, as they have various festivals and weddings to cater to in every season. Their lamps travel to markets in Chennai such as Vadapalani and Mylapore among other places, and even to countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.
85-year old Ganesan still walks across the road to visit his son’s workshop at regular intervals for old time’s sake. While Ganesan himself recalls making pots and utensils in close to 30 designs, Krishnan grandly calls his father a sculptor. “Unlike in my time, there is a lot of demand for clay items, but hardly enough manpower now,” he observes.
However, the class V drop-out, Sathiamoorthy is not ready to have the light extinguished from his profession just yet. “Cook your food once in one of our utensils, and you wouldn’t go back to the stainless steel vessels,” he challenges, adding that if he got the necessary funds, he would expand his business into a small factory in the area.