Vijayanand Shembekar is a senior technician, who works at a chemical and fertiliser factory in Alibaug, Maharashtra. But for a peep inside his home and illustrious work, this down-to-earth 60-year-old man might come across as just another face in the crowd content with working in shifts.
So what is so unique about Shembekar’s two-storied house in the picturesque coastal town, abutting the biodiverse Western Ghats?
He has converted its first floor into an art gallery called Ashirwad Kala Dalan, which contains over 400 artefacts, all repurposed by him from coconut waste. “Every exhibit is handcrafted by me out of discarded coconut shells,” he says. From working vehicular models to lamps, and chains to stands of the gallery stanchions, each piece is made of discarded coconut shells—collected and chiselled to perfection and precision, over the last two decades.
Apart from gathering coconut waste from his surroundings where the drupe is widely used in local cuisine, he brings back discarded coconut shells of various sizes and shapes from his travels. And Shembekar even has his favourites. “I prefer the coconut shells of the Andamans. They are easy to work on,” he explains.
Shembekar firmly believes that no two coconut shells are the same—be it in size or shape, which makes every artefact in his gallery unique. He spends close to two to three hours crafting each piece, and sometimes more depending on the quality of the coconut shell.
His latest instrument is an old sewing machine, which he has customised to do the cutting and smoothing of coconut shells. However, most of his earlier works were crafted by hand, using a small saw and knife. It wasn’t always like this for Shembekar.
As a youngster, he had dabbled in various mediums to channelise his creativity. However, when he was in his mid-20s, he started thinking of reusing waste in some manner and trying something quirky. But, unlike one of his colleagues who chiselled art pieces out of chalk pieces, he was lost as to what material to pick up. It was only two decades later that he could put his idea to regular practice.
“A friend then suggested that I choose one medium of waste, instead of spreading myself thin,” Shembekar says. “As coconut trees are abundantly available in this region, I stuck to the coconut shell, and have never looked back since then.” His very first piece was a lotus. Next were a flower basket and a jewellery box.
Thus was born his collection, which was opened for the public in 2011. Shembekar’s home is now a one-of-a-kind pit stop for children, art enthusiasts and tourists visiting Alibaug. The exhibits aren’t for sale, and neither has he monetised his hobby. “I am doing this out of pure passion for art and craft, and to repurpose waste. So there is no entry fee for visitors.” However, visitors are free to drop money in the donation box—40 percent of which goes to a centre for disabled children in Raigad. The Shembekar family spends their weekends at the centre.
Of late, he spends more time with disabled children and pursues other interests like yoga—a reason why he has crafted just 20 pieces in the last two years. Shembekar also teaches youngsters and art enthusiasts of Alibaug the nitty-gritty of the craft and encourages them to sell their creations online. He also motivates them to repurpose waste and contribute to the environment from a young age.
“I regret starting this hobby in my 40s,” Shembekar says. “If I had started earlier, I would have completed a thousand exhibits and repurposed many more.”