Chennai’s rare sandalwood artist is counting on carvings and craftsmanship- The New Indian Express

Chennai’s rare sandalwood artist is counting on carvings and craftsmanship- The New Indian Express, the vie

Express News Service

CHENNAI : Last year, it was an 11 mm sandalwood miniature carving of Lord Ganesha, dancing to the tune of instruments played by his mooshika (mouse), on a lotus held by the trunk of an elephant as the base.

This year, it’s a 13 mm sandalwood miniature carving of the elephant god, enjoying the shades of karpaga virutcham, along with his mooshika. The lull in business, since the pandemic, has not stopped TK Bharani – one of the last few sandalwood artists – from offering his reverence to his favourite god, ahead of Ganesh Chaturthi. 

Armed with his steel blade, umbrella ends and cycle spokes, in the last 33 years, this third-generation craftsman has sculpted several deities, temples and scenes from Indian epics and mythology, using tiny slivers of sandalwood, in all shapes and sizes. A glimpse of his work tells us that it is his eye for details and flawless chiselling that renders a magical finish to all his sculptures.

An auspicious touch

Adding to his repertoire is the latest miniature idol that entailed two months of labour. “The Vinayagar is about ½ inch and the mooshika is 2 mm. While the tree, Ganesha and mouse are made of sandalwood, the base is made using rosewood. I named him Karpaga Virtuchaga Vinayagar, hoping and praying that he’d shower his blessing and prosperity to many who lost their livelihoods in the lockdown,” shares the national award-winning craftsman, a resident of Thirumazhisai. 

While Krishna Janmashtami and Ganesh Chathurthi are the busiest periods for Bharani, the last two years have been dull with little to no orders. “Artisans like me would count on exhibitions hosted by the Central and State governments in the cities. I’ve had zero business in the lockdown. Usually, I would ship some customised orders to Poompuhar Handicrafts in Chennai or museums and art galleries in New Delhi. Now, there’s no demand. Artists are switching jobs to earn better. I can confidently say that ours is the only surviving family of sandalwood carvers in India. After me, the art will fade away,” he rues. 

Cast in time and tradition

A profession that was already on the verge of dying, the pandemic worsened the predicament for Bharani and his family, forcing them to take up agriculture for an alternative income. That the invasion of CNC (computerised numerical control) machines has stolen the spotlight from handmade idols, has only made the crisis seem like quicksand for him.

“When an intricate design can be mass-produced with a machine in a limited time for a lesser cost, who would say no to machine-made products. Sandalwood carving is labour-intensive and time-consuming. The most challenging part is sourcing this wood from Bengaluru as it’s expensive. We’ve had no support from the government either. Upon request for help, we’re being asked to form an association. With hardly any sandalwood carvers left, where will I find people? It’s a pitiable state with no monetary support or recognition,” says Bharani.

Even as many artisans have taken the digital route to promote their works, it has not been a favourable business model for Bharani. “It’s miniature, so not much of the detailing will be visible when browsed online. People will not be convinced to pay a big sum for a small carving without taking a look at it in person. Secondly, while many artisans have been conducting virtual workshops, that’s not possible for something like sandalwood carving which can only be learnt by observing and replicating. Having said that, I will be offering classes soon, given the spike in interest for this artform among women and children,” he notes.

Hope is what Bharani has held on to while waiting for better opportunities and more platforms to teach, showcase and preserve this art. “It’s been a dream for me to apply for Padma Shri. The contributions of my forefathers to this art are something to cherish for a lifetime. Our work truly is worship to us,” says the master artisan. 

Address: No 11 Kasthuribai street, Thirumazhisai, Chennai 600124

Call: 9444657747, 8190030011

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