Lights out for lamp makers

Among the last earthen lamp makers at Kosapet in Royapettah, P Manoharan works a job that leaves him with fewer profits.
Lamp Making with clay. (Photo | P Ravikumar)
Lamp Making with clay. (Photo | P Ravikumar)

CHENNAI:  Seated on a rickety checkered stool, listening to Tamil tunes, P Manoharan effortlessly transforms clay into mann paanai (mud bowls) and agal vilakku (lamps), on a whirring wheel. He gently separates the lamp from the wheel with a long thin needle, and places it on a wooden board. These wares dry for a week in the sun and need to be baked in high heat.

Tapping on a finished cup, now a reddish ochre colour, the 63-year-old smiles, “Hear this sound? This full sound means they are done. An unfinished lamp wouldn’t have any sound. These are sold to vendors for Rs 1.50” During Deepavali and Karthigai Deepam, these lit lamps — the painstaking results of artisans like Manoharan — dot homes and temples, burning through the night. In Jaam Bazaar, bargaining customers buy these lamps from the vendors for Rs 4 or Rs 5.

For the past 50 years, Manoharan has been making lamps and later began supplying cups to hotels. He is the last in the long line of artisans of Kosapet or Kuyavampettai, once the hub of potters. As a teenager, Manoharan watched his father and artisans shaping clay into cups, a variety of lamps, and vessels. “You can’t teach this work, you have to carefully observe the hands – how the fingers and palm works. You can’t learn it in a few days; the clay will first break. Once you start trying, you’ll learn in six months,” he says, smoothening the inside of the lamp. 

Located behind Mavadi Vinaykar Kovil at Royapettah, his dusty workshop — filled with sacks of mud, and stocked wares – has been witness to the coming and large goings of artisans. A box of broken cups, and pieces of clay rest in the corner of the room, memories of Manoharan’s days of learning. Now, his only company includes a cat snoozing on the front step, and ants crawling inside the cups.

Of livelihoods and losses
In October, November and December, the northeast monsoon arrives, bringing an interruption in the daily work. “We can’t bake the ware during the rain and if left to dry and rain comes, it will dissolve back into clay,” explains Manoharan.

On a regular day, the artisan sticks to crafting wooden cups for storing curd and supplies them to hotels. This earns him Rs 30,000 a month which is enough to “pay my current and other bills,” he says. Of the Rs 30,000 he earns, Rs 10,000 buys him bags of clay paste from lakes in Thiruvallur or Puducherry.  

“There’s no place to make our paste anymore, you need to put water, dry, and stamp on it. Now, the lakes in Chennai have dried up or there are buildings in their place,” says Manoharan. The advent of Plaster of Paris, too has affected their business, with those machine-made lamps selling for Rs 1 as opposed to the clay ones of Rs 1 and 50 paisa.

Kannan, who lives behind the temple, terms this profession varumanam illada thozhil (a job without a profit). Around four years ago, he would craft larger bowls for harvest festivals like Pongal. Now, like other artisans, he has left the traditional art and is now employed as a night watchman in a nearby area. “After Covid-19 came, everything changed, the orders also reduced and it was difficult to manage food,” he says. However, the fight to revive the craft continues. A group of artisans staged a protest at Valluvar Kottam on Thursday and submitted a petition at the Collectorate, urging government intervention or aid, says Kannan. 

For Manoharan, the future of this art is bleak as it renders no profits. As he is done with his daily work by 9 am, he slips back past the narrow passage, the Vinayakar temple, and back to his house. His feline friend follows him, and he tells us again, “I’m the last one here. there is nobody else left.”

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The New Indian Express