The name O. Velayudhan Achari may not be familiar to present-day residents of Thiruvananthapuram, but senior folks still recall ‘ O.V. Arts ’ on Pazhavangadi-Overbridge road, an art studio that was once synonymous with fine ivory, wood sculpture and other artworks produced in erstwhile Travancore. The man behind this venture was Kalaratnam O. Velayudhan Achari (1890-1979).
He was born in Mukkolakkal, near Sreevaraham. He came from a clan of skilled craftsmen from Tirunelveli, who came to Thiruvananthapuram for renovating the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple. Being a member of the traditional artisan community, it was quite natural for young Velayudhan to choose a career in craft for his livelihood.
Learning the art
In 1903, his elder sibling went to Mysore to learn the basics of ivory carving. After three years of rigorous training, he returned to Thiruvananthapuram and taught the intricacies of the craft to members of his guild, including Velayudhan. Soon, Velayudhan was enrolled as an employee at an ivory workshop associated with the School of Arts (present Fine Arts College). The young craftsman who had an aptitude for drawing managed to learn the techniques of perspective drawing and painting from reputed artists of those times.
Before long, he became popular amongst theatre backdrop painters and illustrators. The royal family of Travancore also extended their patronage and invited Achari to decorate the interiors of the palaces with artworks carefully selected from the Hindu epics. Further, the depiction of Gods and Goddesses in the Onavillu (ceremonial bow presented at the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple) were remodelled following the instructions of Achari.
By the time he established a studio at Overbridge, Achari had become an expert in bronze casting and sculpting. Many of his life-sized statues, idols, and busts of renowned personalities were sought after by his clients. A bust of Raja Ravi Varma, made by Achari, can still be seen at Sri Chitra Art Gallery. Another bust of Mangala Bayi Thampuratti, a talented artist and younger sister of Raja Ravi Varma, is preserved in Varma’s studio at Kilimanoor.
Accent on quality
The mass production of craft objects leading to the circulation of inferior quality items in the market was of great concern to Velayudhan Achari. In response, Achari and a few like-minded individuals established Travancore Ivory Carvers’ Cooperative Alliance Limited (1944) in the same building where he had his studio. For long, the Alliance was a sought-after place for procuring the most excellent craft pieces in whole of Travancore.
Today, the fame of the master craftsman largely rests on his role in moulding the idol of Sree Sastha for Sree Dharma Sastha Temple, Sabarimala. In 1951, Achari moulded a clay figure based on a mould created from the damaged idol and a photograph of an idol of Sastha that was provided by the royal family of Travancore. The initial work was carried out in Thiruvananthapuram and the panchaloha idol was cast by Chengannur Neelakanta Panikker.
For long, the clay figure by Achari was housed in the Ivory Carvers’ Co-operative Alliance. Later, during the reconstruction of the building, the piece was reportedly thrown in to fill up the basement of the new structure!
With the passage of time, O.V. Achari’s name faded from popular memory.
The writer is a conservation architect and history buff