Made of ‘cheradi’ straw following the traditional modes of production, K.Babu’s straw art works belong to a unique repertoire of indigenous craft. Widely popular during the pre-digital era, the art form is nearly-extinct now and the award-winning artisan has been trying to keep the craft alive for the last two decades.
Though he has trained hundreds of people during a career spanning over 45 years, the artist says currently the craft has very few practitioners. “We follow a signature technique using a particular variety of paddy and some other organic ingredients. In Assam, the artisans use bamboo to make similar works but this particular art form originated in Kerala. This technique is very unique and not practised by artisans from any other part of India. But the loss of market has forced many artists to take up unskilled employment including daily wage labour,” he says. Locally known as ‘Kachippadam Babu’, the artist has developed a special format to ensure better quality of straw pictures. “We create paintings without colour using straw and organic gum sourced from tree sap. The pigment range of straw is very narrow and the challenge lies in blending the right shades. We have to work with a handful of shades from golden to dark brown,” he says. The straw is first dried and then soaked in water for two days to get rid of impurities and microbes. Fresh straw will be very light in colour and the raw material is often dipped in caustic soda solution to achieve the golden tint. “For darker shades the straw is stored in wet jute sacks for days. Unlike routine landscapes, it takes a couple of months to complete a good work.” While his work ’Srirama Pattabhishekam’ won the national award instituted by Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) in 1996, Mr.Babu is also the recipient of a spate of other honours from various States. “I have participated in countless exhibitions, conducted several training programmes and workshops in the past. Earlier there was a steady demand for straw works and we used to get bulk orders from foreign countries like Switzerland. But it all ended with the digital explosion as handmade cards and calendars became redundant.”
Though he continues to train people and popularise straw craft, Mr.Babu feels the art form is dying.
“You will need a couple of years to learn the art form, but the expertise will not always ensure money. The younger generation is not interested in investing their time in a dying, poorly-paid art form,” he adds.