In a small dry-garland shop in Chintadripet, Rajendran shows me a zari garland with dancing lights. Red, blue and green lights run circles around the names of the bride and groom, written on round badges on either side of the garland. “This is going to Andhra Pradesh; each panel has 14 bulbs, powered by a battery,” he says, showing me other unusual varieties such as dry-fruits, camphor and bead garlands, and a broad, shiny one, with 60 one-rupee coins. “These are very popular for 60th birthdays.” Twenty five years ago, when Rajendran got into the trade, dry-garlands were only made with zari; the variations are more recent, although sandalwood beads have been used for nearly 15 years. “Ayya Mudali Street in Chintadripet is famous for dry-garlands; it’s been made and sold here for over 50 years,” he says.
The son of a military man, 49-year-old Rajendran too applied to the Army, but opted to go into business with his partner Sundar. “Initially, I worked as an assistant in a shop here and learnt the nuances.”
He says, “The zari garland is actually the hardest to make; it’s very time-consuming, since you use your hands, legs and the ‘taapa’ (a plastic-bucket filled with cement, with a short bamboo pole sticking up in the middle) simultaneously.” He then pulls out four strands of spring-like silver zari and inserts one end in the taapa. He gently pulls the coiled zari, and wraps the other end on his big toe; with nimble fingers, he twists the strands into a tidy plait; when he holds it up to show me, it glints in the tube-light. “The Surat zari used in the garlands is copper with a silver coating. Originally, silver was used, but it’s not economical. The garlands cost between Rs.40 and Rs.1000. See this thread? It’s the same material as the fuse wires in bulbs; when I began working, it was Rs.120 a kilo; now it costs Rs.1000,” says Rajendran.
But it’s the nature of the work that stymies this cottage industry; given that the garlands are made entirely by hand (his two helpers typically make four pieces in a day), labour charges eat into the profits. “The high cost of living makes it very difficult for us. I doubt the next generation will be interested in this; my sons definitely don’t want to take it up,” he says.Rajendran is constantly looking for ways to innovate. He shows me photographs of garlands made to order - badam, pista, and caradamoms strung together beautifully, embellished with silver and gold threads and tinsel pendants. He walks into the 100-year-old building and returns with a four-foot long ‘VIP garland’, with pink fabric flowers and smooth sandal beads. “This is our speciality,” he says, and adds, “We export these to Malaysia and Singapore. One client even took them to London!” As we speak, a customer drops by to pick up a bespoke garland for an Ayyappan statue. “Super, super,” he says, paying Rs.100 for the sandalwood garland.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)