Meeting Daddy was the turning point in my life. I was on a break from the Gulf where I was working as a mason when a friend introduced me to famous architect Laurie Baker. He was then working on a project for designing and building the Centre for Development Studies in Akkulam. All of us called him Daddy. He took me under his wing and I never went back to the Gulf. There was no need.
I am whatever I am because of Daddy. From that day onwards there wasn’t a single day when I did not have work. If we were not working on a project, Daddy would take us to his home and give us work to do. There was always something or the other going on his house, The Hamlet, at Nalanchira.
Daddy trained us and showed us how to build in his style. It is a cost-effective method but one that is strong and uses local materials. From him I learnt jali work, that is using bricks to shape openings to serve as windows, turning glass bottles into a part of the wall to let in light and also for decorative purposes… He taught us how to make concrete roofs using tiles. Not only did it decrease overall cost, it also acted as an insulation against the heat and made the house cooler.
My house’s roof is also built in that style. That is why it is cool even in the height of summer. It is a three-storey building and that is proof of its load bearing capacity. Daddy was a perfectionist. His walls were always built of full bricks; he never used broken bricks. The structure was always in accordance with the lay of the land and we learnt a lot just by observing him. I was a mason who was well-versed in the local masonry methods. I began as an apprentice at the age of 16. I studied up to class eight. Then I began working as a mason’s assistant and graduated to become a fully-fledged mason. But Daddy introduced me to a different way of working.
He did not know much of Malayalam and I did not know English but one day he heard me speak a smattering of Hindi and from then on he spoke to me in Hindi. Always courteous and generous, Daddy ensured that all those who worked with him learnt the work properly and prospered.
After the work on Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Ulloor, was completed, he put me in charge of Nalini Nayak’s house at Anayara. I also built houses for then HUDCO chairman (V) Suresh sir and COSTFORD’s joint director PB Sajan sir, the iconic Indian Coffee House building at Thampanoor...
Lots of students used to come and observe him at work… they would be sketching his designs, asking him questions about his working methods and so on. I remember Sajan sir and Shailaja madam coming as students to see his projects.
Now Sajan sir is spearheading Daddy’s architectural legacy. We still have plenty of students who come to our projects to observe and learn Daddy’s methods and I am only too glad to show them the entire process. Many students and researchers also frequent our sites to study his techniques. That is the way to preserve his legacy.
I now work as an independent contractor. I have about 60-70 masons working with me. There is still a great deal of demand for Daddy’s school of architecture.
This is a photo of a building I built recently near Attukal. Here, take a look. It is built on six cents of land and is three storeys. Some people want their inner walls to be plastered and I oblige. We also build in the old fashioned way and use mud as a material to build walls. After all, this was how our houses were built in the olden days. But that does not mean I refuse to take up projects where people want concrete houses. I do that also. I cannot afford to refuse projects.
What perturbs me is how youngsters in Kerala are reluctant to work as masons. In my team of 60-70 masons, but for four or five chaps, all the others are from other states. Some of them have been working with me for more than 15 years and I am bowled over by their work ethic. They pick up quickly and are extremely hard-working.
It is easy to build in the conventional fashion but building in Daddy’s style requires skill and these migrant workers are quick learners. The walls have to be built properly and there is no scope for error. Many of our youngsters want to take life easy. They don’t like working in the sun or heights. They forget that a mason earns around Rs 800 every day and there is every opportunity to better one’s life. After all that is what I did.
At 57, I can say life has been kind to me. This is my wife, Bini’s place at Neerazhi Lane. She is from Kochulloor.
My family is from a village near CDS. My daughter, Biji, is a nurse and she is in Chennai. Her husband is migrating to Canada. My son, Bijesh, a civil engineer, is leaving for higher studies in Australia.
I am still in touch with Daddy’s children and clients. Whenever they need some help in the house, they call me and I go over to sort out small problems. How can I forget Daddy or his clients? They built the foundation in my life!
(A column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is )