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Carving elephants with a passion

Most of the majestic wooden elephants (with nails), found in the city crafts emporiums are made by Thrissur artisans, under the aegis of Krishnankutty Menon. He is the one who made the huge Nataraja for Mohanlal. SUDHA NAMBUDIRI meets him.

HAVE YOU ever wondered who makes those huge and majestic wooden elephants, which don the city's crafts emporiums? The elephants carved out from the girth of a tree are most sought after by tourists who flock these stores, in search of a truly Kerala souvenir.

The person credited with this art is not a full-time sculptor, nor is he an artisan. But he has been associated with the making and sale of elephant carvings for more than a half a century, so much so that the 76-year-old P. Krishnankutty Menon is fondly called `Aana Menon' by the locals in Cherpu, Thrissur.

The talented "Aana Menon' besides his elephantine prejudice, has also sculpted a 131/2ft Nataraja for actor Mohanlal, who has a passion for such works, be it art or craft. "I don't think in this life, I will ever be involved with such a huge work again.

We are grateful to Mohanlal for having given us this opportunity," Mr. Menon says. Mohanlal is said to have funded the whole operation of shifting that tree to the artisan's house and then moving the monolithic Nataraja all the way to his house in Chennai. While Tamil Nadu wood was used for the figure, the two-feet high base was made of wood imported from Malaysia. "It took months to cut the wood to proper size, using a handsaw operated from specially constructed trenches. Cranes had to be employed to shift the pieces into position as well as to shift the Nataraja to the actor's residence.

An artisan called Shankaran, along with as many as 15 assistants, took about eight months to complete the work. Yet another work done for the actor is a life-size (five-ft high) elephant, also for his home.

But coming back to his affair with the pachyderm, Mr. Menon says, "We Keralites have a passion for elephants despite it being a common sight in our State. This is specially so among the people in Thrissur, maybe because of the famous Thrissur Pooram. So every time an elephant goes by, you find people stopping to take a look at the animal. I also do the same for I have been fascinated by the elephant". That explains why he got into this `elephantine business' of dealing in wooden carvings especially of the pachyderm.

As one walks through the streets of Kerala towns, one invariably finds wooden elephants adorning the shelves of many a shop. But not all of them are alike. Just like the African elephant (the live one that is!) is different from the Asian counterpart, the artisans' creations are also different. For example, the Thiruvananthapuram wooden carvings are very different from those made in Thrissur.

The unique feature about the Thrissur elephant figurines is that they have nails. Unlike other elephant carvings, one can identify the Thrissur elephants by their beautifully painted white or light nails. Mr. Menon says that people make an extra effort to trace the dealers and makers of the now famous Thrissur elephants. They even come all the way to his home to place bulk orders.

"Making a wooden elephant is not very hard work unlike carving other animal figures, as they have a plain huge body. Yet people buy them," he observes. Though most of the customers are foreigners or non-Keralites, in recent years even the locals have taken a fancy to wooden elephants, which they treasure as showpieces, he adds.

One cannot but be amazed by the different sizes of elephants at his home-cum-office. They come from three inches up to 26 inches. The largest that he had with him was about 36 inches, which was bought by a Frenchman some months ago. While most of the figurines are those of the elephant standing straight, there are other poses too, including pushing or pulling logs, engaged in a fierce duel, caparisoned in complete majesty, lying down, seated or raising the trunk in salute.

"Every time we attend a temple festival, we look for something new in the elephant by way of behaviour and body language. These ideas are passed on to the artisans who then duplicate it in wood," says C. Ramachandran Menon (Chandran), Mr. Menon's son.

In Thiruvananthapuram and Cherpu, these intricate figures are made, especially on foreign demand. Carved elephants were once made in ebony. But most of Mr. Menon's elephants are in rosewood. The pachyderm comes to him in a rough form. After sandpapering, it is polished, using the common shoe-polish. He says that it is convenient for the buyers too. All one needs is to sandpaper and then use shoe-polish to give the carving its shine.

Then there are the skin-carved elephants, which to explain in a layman's language would be to say, `lot of wrinkles, like that on a real elephant.'

The most interesting aspect about these carvings is that they are made on a single piece of wood. The width of the tree's girth is the height of the elephant. When the forest department comes across fallen trees, they are sold to registered dealers or artisans.

"I'm very close to a few artisans who have been with me for a long time. So every time they need financial help, they come to me. Sometimes, they bring finished elephant carvings and we make immediate payment. There are a few who are very talented; it is an inborn gift and anything they make comes out exquisite. Over the years, we have shifted from only elephants carvings to making other small sculptures including that of gods and goddesses," he explains. "It is in making them that the talent of the maker stands out," Mr. Chandran says, pointing to the facial features of some of the idols.

The septuagenarian has been a dealer of these elephant figurines since 1968, when the locals formed a co-operative society at Cherpu with the objective of making and selling them. It was in the 70s that Mr. Menon's small office, registered as Modern Art Industries, bagged orders to export to Japan and then gradually to other countries.

Though he has handed over the business to his son, Mr. Menon is still very much involved in the business, though only on an advisory basis. "Business has come down," he says.

But there are still people who come all the way to Cherpu to buy elephants, especially those looking for bulk orders.

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