“Mere liye kuch nahi ‘throw’ hai!” exclaims the exuberant man, as he leads us up a dimly lit staircase. We look to our left, at the wall decorated with his intricate art — a feat we hadn’t fully appreciated as yet. He turns around, looking at us with the enthusiasm of a giddy teenager and asks, “What led you here?” This question was bound to come our way, considering we were supposed to be traversing Alibaug’s sandy terrain, but were in fact, in Ashirwad Kaladalan, a Coconut Shell Art Gallery.
If we were to be entirely honest, this plan of ours unravelled when we were all standing outside the famed Hotel Sanman, a tad bit early for lunch time. None of us were quite ready to take on the much talked about Fish Thali yet, leading us to rely on our handy-dandy friend, Google. The usual suggestions made their way to our search results, but only one remained close enough to walk to. One phone call and a quick 15-minute walk later, we were greeted by Vijayanand Shembekar at the very front gate of his house.
At first glance, the many marvels along his staircase, through to his hall appear to be simple wood carving until you take a closer look at it. Over the last 12 years, this 56-year-old man has collected waste coconuts and has painstakingly transformed them into works of art. From fallen, broken coconuts, empty shells, stems, leaves and even coconut husks, this marvel of an artist is an environmental force to reckon with.
We walk into a hall that is set up to resemble your run-of-the-mill art gallery, albeit with art that we can assure you, you’ve never seen before. On closer inspection, you’ll notice little labels with numbers on it, ranging from anywhere between 2 to 148 – a feature we questioned, only to have our doubts waved away gently as he diligently took us through the story behind Ashirwad Kaladalan and the many aspects of his work.
To those who don’t dabble in the arts, this may sound like a rather daunting task but rest assured, this man has more to contribute than simply art; he drops in philosophical gems (“People see nothing in waste or diseased coconuts. Likewise, people label others as ‘good for nothing’. But nothing and no one is ‘waste’; it’s simply up to you to find the good in them.”), whilst maintaining refreshing candour throughout his conversation.
As we walk, we notice that his hobby is truly one that he takes seriously — even the chains meant to protect his exhibits are made out of waste coconut — right down to the links, the standees and the slight deco adorning each stand. He smiles at our wonder, “Yeh kudh ka innovation hai (This is my own invention.)”
Plates made out of coconut leaves have been painted over, with various scenic depictions of nature which he says has been contributed to by a fellow artist who visits his gallery every now and then. To its left are a series of intricate lamps (perhaps our favourite section of his gallery), carved out of multiple coconut shells, and fitted with wiring to light them up. When we ask if he would be willing to sell any, we receive yet another warm smile, one that we are getting accustomed to at this point, “It is easy for a customer to put a price on art, but not so easy for an artist to do the same. We lose track of the time we invest in one single piece of work; the effort that goes into it is unaccounted for; all you see is the final stage. So no, to answer your question. Plus, it is rare for me to come across a coconut that is identical; hence, each piece of art is original.”
He points out a few diseased coconuts that he has reshaped into an owl, a monkey, as well as a mother hugging her daughter — visions that he makes a reality for others to witness. It isn’t the easiest to repurpose a coconut shell, especially when you want to mould it, but over the years with his many tools, he has taught himself ways — cutting, grinding, and joining multiple pieces to make art. “A friend of mine told me to focus on only one medium of waste, instead of spreading myself thin. I picked coconuts, and never looked back. The first ever carving I made was of a lotus,” he reminisces.
Besides being Alibaug’s coconut shell artist, the man lives a multi-faceted life. He works at Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers (RCF), is a yoga teacher, hosts creative classes for disabled children and also gives lectures at multiple institutions. He shrugs, “I’ve invested five lakhs into this gallery, but I make enough, so I never have to sell my art.”
His coconuts have been globetrotters though, as he points out watches (yes, actual analogue watches) built out of coconuts from Kashmir, stork statues made out of coconuts from the Andamans, and more. He laughs, “I was terrified while bringing coconuts back from the Andamans, but turns out, I could’ve brought back a whole bag!” Besides his own travels, he gets coconuts from his own friends’ backyards — in fact, they especially make it a point to drop off the odd coconuts, knowing their friend will appreciate it.
If you’re ever in Alibaug with some time on your hands, we’d suggest visiting Vijayanand Shembekar and his delightful gallery. You may not be able to take back a souvenir, but you can take back several little life lessons that he’ll casually drop into conversation, gain a few laughs and garner a whole new level of respect for the environment and all that it provides, in an afternoon. Oh, and if you’re nice enough, perhaps he’ll even invite you to meditate in the midst of his home — he claims it’s incredibly calming and reformative.
Call him in advance (we called 15 minutes ahead though, to be honest) to book a meeting with him on 9421163756 / 7588105251.
For more information, check out this page.
All the photographs in this article are by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.
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