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Wheels fall off lamp makers' lives

Aruna V. Iyer
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Power cuts along with steep hike in prices of raw materials - clay, hay - switch off the light of smile

darkness at noon:Direct orders from people and temples in places such as Madurai, Bangalore and Tiruparangundram do come every Karthigai season, and that is their only way of making some extra money. In this picturea woman making clay lamp in Tiruvanaikovil on Monday.PHOTO: M.SRINATH
darkness at noon:Direct orders from people and temples in places such as Madurai, Bangalore and Tiruparangundram do come every Karthigai season, and that is their only way of making some extra money. In this picturea woman making clay lamp in Tiruvanaikovil on Monday.PHOTO: M.SRINATH

Last year this season, Kondayanpettai kosavars (potters) were a happier lot: the prolonged power cuts this year have made them stow away their electric thiruvais (potter’s wheels) and get back to the traditional hand spun wheel.

Throw in some steep hikes in the prices of raw materials like clay, coconut mattais and hay, and the community seems to be making lesser profits despite the continuing demand for their agals (clay lamps).

“On the electric wheel we could make up to 1,000 lamps a day, but that has fallen to a paltry few hundreds this year, thanks to the power situation,” says Mallika from Keela Kondayanpettai.

While her husband’s electric wheel has almost fallen into disuse, she and her mother-in-law have been toiling over their hand spun wheel.

Starting early

“With the power cuts almost halving our production, we had to start working towards our Karthigai season target two months in advance this year,” she says.

Beginning their day around 8 a.m. daily, the women wrap up only by five in the evening, stopping only to eat or to stretch themselves out.

“If we worked non-stop like this we might hope to make around 300 to 500 lamps by the end of the day,” says Anjalai, Mallika’s mother-in-law.

Pointing to different corners in and around their house, courtyard and backyard, the women explain the processes involved in lamp-making: “The clay sourced from fields and river banks is dried for a day under the sun, soaked in water overnight, softened by stamping with feet, and heaped onto the wheel, where with deft movements of the hand, new agals are sliced away every few minutes.

“While a 100 stacks of hay and a 100 coconut mattais have gone up to Rs.100 (from Rs. 50) and Rs.50 (from Rs. 30), the clay has jumped to Rs.2,500 per lorry load, denting their profits the maximum.

Lesser for less

“Even though there is a healthy demand for our lamps, people are unwilling to take into account the rise in production costs,” says Devaki, who sells the lamps she bought from potters.

A set of 100 lamps has been pegged at Rs.80 for the Karthigai season, while the same batch will fetch only about Rs.60 in lean seasons around the year.

“This year, we are selling lesser lamps at low prices,” she says, hopeful of a mere 100 rupees margin for every 1,000 lamps they buy in wholesale.

Direct orders from people and temples in places such as Madurai, Bangalore and Tiruparangundram do come every Karthigai season, and that is their only way of making some extra money.

“If the government gave us subsidy on raw materials for the Karthigai season, we would be able to set aside a few batches of lamps to tide us through the following months at least,” says Mallika.

Besides these issues thwarting production, the potters have to deal with natural threats: “If it rains now, there will be a scurry to protect the lamps from getting wet under our leaky thatched roofs,” says Aandiyappan, “because wet lamps can crack and doom our already bleak prospects.”

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