Boat makers of the South: Meet the mistris of Thaikkal

With a decade-long research backing it, Tara Books’ new title Boat Builders of the Coromandel delves into Tamil Nadu’s traditional boat yards

Updated - May 31, 2024 04:08 pm IST

Published - May 31, 2024 12:30 pm IST

Men working at the Thaikkal boat yard

Men working at the Thaikkal boat yard | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

These days, ‘making something’ can be as easy as opening an AI generator, keying in a few phrases and hitting enter. But of course, one cannot predict or comment on the quality of what is made. Boat Builders of the Coromandel (Tara Books) deals with something that is at diametrically opposite ends to this kind of assisted creation. The book — by Balasubramanian Dhandapani, a research engineer; Denis Vidal, a social anthropologist; and Gopinath Sricandane, a visual documentation specialist — is a study in patience, skill and craft.

The creators spent years researching and documenting the work of close to 300 artisanal boat builders in Thaikkal, a small hamlet near Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, for a project on the relationship between ‘low’ and ‘high’ technologies. They approached Tara Books to help turn a decade’s worth of interviews, research and photographs into a book. “As researchers, it is our responsibility to share our findings with society,” says Dhandapani over email. In addition to the book, a documentary film, Of Wind and Wood – Sustainable Cargo Ships in France and in India, has been screened at festivals across Europe (it premiered at the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris) and in Puducherry.

I’m no boat enthusiast and yet I found myself drawn to Thaikkal’s history, the chaotic boat-building yards, its people, and the very act of boat-building itself.

An apprenticeship model

A colonial port, Cuddalore once saw small crafts called vattai ferry goods between ships docked at mid-sea and the shore. Fishermen discovered they were good business and invested in them, over time intuiting the need for larger wooden boats that could carry heavier cargo. “We were interested in this evolution and how traditional forms of craftsmanship have not only been preserved but also renewed and redeveloped locally,” says Dhandapani.

While the majority of boats are commissioned by the shipping industry for commercial purposes, some clients order them as memorials to honour family elders. The boats are built by maritime carpenters, the majority of whom belong to the fishing community. Doubling up as sailors, caulkers, and mistries, they have acquired their skills over years. Some start young, and become apprentices after dropping out of school to support their families.

A man chopping wood

A man chopping wood | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Iron smithing

Iron smithing | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Kathiravan mistri, one of the builders, says that all apprentices begin with sundry tasks such as cleaning, fetching tools. “You don’t start out with a chisel. You earn your way towards it,” he says, explaining that they absorb how boats are built by watching and listening.

Kathiravan mistri

Kathiravan mistri | Photo Credit: Gopinath S.

The builders follow a ‘plank-first’ approach. The sides of the boat (the planking) are built using wood imported from Southeast Asian and Central African countries. Teak and iluppai are preferred for the frames, as they are hard and can withstand salt water, and are sourced locally.

A boat frame being constructed

A boat frame being constructed | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A man sawing wood at the boat yard

A man sawing wood at the boat yard | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Work in progress at Thaikkal

Work in progress at Thaikkal | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A boat under construction

A boat under construction | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Applying tar as waterproofing

Applying tar as waterproofing | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Unsung talent

The authors observe that the builders do not hold on to customs rigidly. Instead, they are “flexible and open” in their approach, adapting their ways of working to the task ahead. When motorised boats became the norm, rather than view it as a problem, they adapted their techniques and changed the size and design of the boats. No doubt, this approach has helped the small industry remain relevant even today.

Making by hand is a long and enduring tradition in India and yet, as the authors say, “In a caste society like India, a lot of respect is given to text whilst practical work that requires hard labour is devalued. None of the boat builders in Cuddalore have a formal education in naval architecture, but the vessels they build cross the seas, provide livelihood and contribute to the economy.”

Thaikkal boat yard

Thaikkal boat yard | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A boat ready to be launched

A boat ready to be launched | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

One of the quotes in the book that stayed with me was from Anotoni Ignaci, a Tuticorin tindal (sailor), who says, “Nobody knows about what we do. Or that we have this talent for building boats.” Hopefully, this book will change that.

The writer is a children’s book author and columnist based in Bengaluru.

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