The age-old adage "support local artisans", takes on an urgent tone when we consider communities preserving art forms that have witnessed a steady decline over the years due to dwindling demand.
This decline has been particularly felt in the village of Vilachery, situated merely 7 kilometres away from the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, Madurai. This village once served as a destination for kids seeking traditional toys, Golu bommai (clay dolls), and undiyal (piggy banks), all handcrafted with care and skill by the local artisans.
Madurai's cultural richness owes much to the village of Vilachery, which is deeply ingrained in the recollections of many residents. Here, around 200 artisans, all hailing from pottery communities, have played a pivotal role in keeping the region's heritage alive. It was the visionary efforts of Velar community, particularly the First Three Men of the Velar community—Sadasiva Velar, Suran Velar, and Thangaraman Velar — who laid the foundation for this legacy in 1965. Interestingly, they specialised in crafting terracotta horses as offerings for Ayyanar temples.
The dolls created in Vilachery hold true to tradition. Crafted primarily from clay, these dolls are further strengthened with fibres from elephant dung, showcasing the unique techniques that have been passed down through generations. The artisans meticulously follow a multi-stage process throughout the year. The casting of dolls predominantly takes place from January to March, harnessing the warmth of the summer sun. The addition of basic paint layers extends until July, with the final artistic touches culminating in August and September, just in time for the shopping season. A remarkable number of around 100 clay dolls are crafted daily, and these creations are then fired to perfection in kilns.
The artisans' prowess shines through their creations. Most dolls measure up to 1.5 feet in height. For larger dolls that stand beyond two feet, paper mesh is employed as a lighter alternative. These larger creations, despite their size, retain the delicate detailing that makes them exceptional.
What is particularly riveting is how most of these artisans work amid the tunes of old songs playing from a mobile phone, fueling their creativity through the day's labour.
Many loyal customers return year after year, drawn not only by the artistry on display but by the enduring quality of these creations. Some even bring old idols to be repainted, a testament to the longevity of these artworks. Notably, alongside toys and piggy banks, the idols of goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga are among the most soughtafter pieces. Some dolls are said to be passed on from their mothers and grandmothers to future generations.
However, locals and visitors have observed a decline in craftspeople over the years, primarily attributed to the waning demand for their crafts. Countless artisans remain unnoticed and require support to promote their unique crafts. While they steadfastly hold onto their traditional art forms, it becomes imperative to contextualise them in the contemporary landscape. This is vital towards ensuring that Madurai's rich and diverse cultural heritage, with its marvellous art traditions, does not succumb to neglect.
The light at the end of the tunnel, however, is how many are recognising the importance of keeping this heritage alive. In the face of evolving times, these artisans are embracing innovation. The integration of machines into the production process is gaining increased popularity, with a vision to enhance efficiency. Some artisans are even exploring the potential of computer-assisted design, aiming to establish exclusive showrooms in major cities, thus bypassing intermediaries and middlemen. These endeavours must persist to safeguard these communities from sliding into endangerment in our profoundly consumer-driven society.
As the winds of change sweep through Vilachery, the need to safeguard this tradition becomes increasingly evident. In a world driven by consumerism, the challenge lies in maintaining the delicate balance between preserving heritage and adapting to the demands of the modern age. The intent is clear — to secure the future of this craft and the livelihoods of the artisans who breathe life into these creations.
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