The house is modest: mud walls and a red tiled roof. The man, Irupoolumkunnel Mohanan, also looks modest: deep sensitive eyes and a walrus moustache. But he has a singular talent: making miniature models out of coconut leaf splinters (eerkil). So, in his home at Thottilpalam, near Kozhikode, you can find the Egyptian pyramids, the Titanic, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the famous house boats of Alappuzha. Mohanan, 45, has converted his bedroom into a makeshift workshop and has to work by candlelight when night falls. And the reason is simple: his house, which was completed as part of the Indira Awaz Yojana Housing Project, a couple of years ago, does not have an electricity connection.
But that has not been a deterrent to follow his passion. Recently, he built the Eiffel Tower, with 1,000 splinters, after he saw the photo in a children’s magazine. “It took me eight days,” says Mohanan. “The work is time-consuming, but there is a lot of job satisfaction.” So far, he has made 200 figures.
Surprisingly, this self-taught craftsman does not know the names or the significance of most of the products that he makes. However, Mohanan’s specialty is making multi-storied houses with a dish antenna. Asked why, he says, with a smile, “I am fulfilling my dream of owning such a house with the help of ‘eerkkil’.” Mohanan initially got inspired when he came across a root of the jack fruit tree while levelling soil at Kavilumpara. His success in converting it into a traditional lamp instilled confidence in him to do other products with roots and shells.
“If the art could be a source of earning, he could have focused more on it,” says his wife, Chandrika. To help her husband concentrate on his passion, Chandrika has started working. “Only a few in our village know about his talent. I always wanted to conduct an exhibition of his products,” says Chandrika. Kavilumpara Panchayat President P Surendran says, “If he participates in exhibitions, he could have drawn the attention of many.”
Despite the lack of sales, Mohanan is still going strongly. “The pleasure of making new products and the support of my wife keeps me going,” says Mohanan.
Meanwhile, to make both ends meet, Mohanan has played the diverse roles of a fisherman, tree climber, coolie and servant. “I am a lousy driver, so that is one job that I am unable to do,” he says.
For natives of Thottilpalam, Mohanan can be depended upon to do any job. “I used to seek his help to pluck coconuts,” says Pankajakshi, a local townsman. “We had been unaware of his skill till I accidentally saw a wooden crocodile in his home.” Meanwhile, generous neighbours have been providing splinters free of cost. Mohanan also makes handicraft products with bamboo and coconut shells and uses varnish to get a glossy finish. “The durability of the product depends upon the quality of the raw materials,” he says. Earlier, Mohanan had painted some of his figures, but now in order to give a rustic feel he lets it be in its natural state. Mohanan’s immediate aim is to buy a driller and get an electric connection. “As soon as I get a driller, I will make a Taj Mahal for my wife with coconut shells,” says Mohanan, who has no children. “This is my way of showing how much I appreciate her love and support.”