Travelling through South India

Take a walk with The Papyrus Itineraries to meet Pollachi’s artisans

In a Negamam handloom weavers’ home   | Photo Credit: Pravin Shanmughanandam

When travel magazine, Pollachi Papyrus, came out with its first edition in 2014, founder/editor Pravin Shanmughanandam was flooded with requests from readers to experience what he had featured. “Until then, tourism was commercial and restricted to sightseeing. The town’s infrastructural facilities – like hotels and homestays – were coming up, but nobody had invested in the experiential part of tourism,” says the 30-year-old. At the time, he was returning after stints in Chennai and Bengaluru. Tungsten, the branding firm he had launched, catered to Pollachi-based sustainable agro businesses and brands making a local impact.

Keen on promoting the town’s culture, food and wildlife, in 2015, Shanmughanandam began organising customised tours to the town’s artisanal hubs. The Papyrus Itineraries has since hosted over 2,500 tourists across 250 tours. “Earlier, we [the next generation] were encouraged to move to cities. But as people travelled across the world and aspired to imitate lifestyles in the West, they realised how foreigners valued and yearned for a traditional, farming setting,” he says. The last five years have seen more people returning to their family profession, farming, with a focus on value-addition. “They are marrying farming with entrepreneurship and linking it with design. With this as the core of the business, they believe profits will automatically come. People are not hesitant to call themselves farmers and wear the tag with pride,” says the entrepreneur, adding how the Pongal festival (after a five-10 year dip) is now celebrated grandly in the village, and draws a sizeable audience.

The tours have a carrying capacity, as he believes “tourism shouldn’t be the primary mode of employment for the artisans, so that their art doesn’t lose value. If we don’t protect them, they can get exploited”. It helps that the tourists are evolved, ask the right questions and prefer travelling on a weekday, and not on holidays. Getting artisans involved is key. “The main issue artisans face is the lack of respect – which is why they are keen on interacting with visitors.”

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Palm Leaf Art

It is easy to identify T Krishnasamy’s house. One of the few practitioners of a craft that was used to decorate the royal palaces of the erstwhile Zamins of Uthukuli and Samathur, he is best known for his parrots, colourful torans and fish crafted from tender olai or palm leaves. These hang from the door of his house, where his wife, Karupathal, greets us with a warm smile.

The sought-after artisan — he supplied over 15,000 palm leaf artefacts to the Ambani wedding earlier this year — quickly walks out armed with a bunch of long, slender leaves, sits down in the veranda and gets straight to work. Swiftly slicing through the leaves, he cuts and bends them into strips, and in a couple of minutes, whips out an intricate flower with sharp bends. Soon, a fish and a deer appear. “I can make 50-60 pieces in a day,” says the 64-year-old artisan.

Krishnasamy is a man of few words, and while he is busy with his leaves, Karupathal shows off his newspaper clippings. Following the usual drill he is used to when tourists visit, once he is done, he holds up the pieces, smiles and poses for the camera.


I t is a sunny afternoon when we walk into Murugesan’s backyard in a village known for its jaggery makers. A lady is busy feeding the fire (at a roaring 110° C) under two large vessels where fresh palm juice is bubbling. Eight hours later, the shiny, golden liquid turns into a thick, caramel-like consistency. It is then set in coconut shells to form karupatti. Murugesan, who has been making jaggery since 1957, now retails under the brand, Kavitamil. He tells us how, until 2006, he travelled to villages across Tamil Nadu selling jaggery. “Soon, I was noticed by shops and cooperatives in Erode who started sourcing the sweet treat. They urged us to brand and package it before selling it to them. We expanded to the Chennai market after an exhibition in the city a few years ago,” he says. Kavitamil sells pana karupatti (a masala version with spices such as jeera, sukku, etc), pana kalakand and pana kalakand podi.


The clickety-clack of handlooms is audible a few yards from Nagaraj’s home. He, and his brother, Mahendran, are busy on their pit looms. Nagaraj is working on bright orange, green and yellow Negamam cotton yarn to create abstract motifs and a maroon border. Fifth generation weavers, Shanmughanandam tells us that their ancestors belong to the erstwhile Vijayanagara kingdom. “They even speak a bit of Kannada,” he explains, taking us through the weaving process across four homes in the village. Dyed yarn from cotton mills are sourced by Lakshmi Textiles and provided to the weavers. It is then drawn out, hand-spun to form threads, dyed, woven and handed back to the textile firm. A team of in-house designers at the company also provide them with designs. “The weavers are working towards preserving a century-old art and are passionate about their work. But when it comes to recognition, they fall behind. Their own relatives and children don’t value them,” he says. We walk into Arumugam’s home next door, which is designed around a giant wheel fitted indoors. This is where the wound thread comes for warping. They’ve been on the job for the last 10 years, but their son refuses to visit them; he doesn’t consider their work and lifestyle respectable. “But they are thrilled with the interest from foreigners and other visitors. We’ve had design students from Italy who are amazed with the process: a five-colour printing machine can get this wrong, but a dyer at home (using his grandfather’s otakkal) gets the precision right every time with each shade. It’s pure art.”


I t has been a long day and we reach Balasubramanian’s home as the sun is setting. Not an ideal hour to see a potter at work, but we make it just in time to watch him smoothing clay pots with a metal hammer. As we walk through the yard lined with mud lamps and pots drying in neat rows, we’re told that he, and his younger brother, Murugan, have spent the day crafting pots (30 a day), lamps and uruvaarams (figurines).

While the making process is similar to what potters across the country follow, the firing makes Pollachi’s craft distinct. Potters like Balasubramanian still follow the traditional process. “We dry the pots and artefacts in direct sunlight for a day. Deep pits are dug and they (the products) are placed overnight along with coconut husk and coal, and then covered with sand.”

Interestingly, the figurines (horses and cows) — in bright blue and red hues — are bought by locals and placed in temples when their cattle fall sick.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 2:24:40 PM |

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