VIRUDHUNAGAR: When looked from an elevation on a summer day, Sivakasi village itself might seem to be boiling. The village was said to have been under the grip of a famine too.
It was in this village of unforgiving nature that A Shanmuga Nadar and P Ayya Nadar were born in 1903 and 1905 respectively to two brothers. By the time they reached their teen, the boys were convinced of one thing: Their village was too small for their big dreams.
However, instead of searching for greener pastures, the boys decided to make their own village ‘greener’, an irony that would slowly envelop the village over time.
The brothers did not have to wait for long for an opportunity to realise it.
It all started with news from Calcutta (today’s Kolkata), a city already teeming with numerous factories. The cousins were teenagers when they heard about a new industry in that far-away city: Matchstick manufacturing.
They listened with avid interest as their relative Chinna Nadar told them about the potential it has.
The cousins could not dismiss the news as tall tales. In their indefatigable minds, a grand plan was already in the making.
Armed with a few rupees and fewer Bengali words, the boys set out on their journey to the pre-independence West Bengal in 1922. After much struggle, they landed jobs in a matchstick-manufacturing unit in Calcutta.
To their dismay, however, they were put in the packaging section; they had no means to learn the art. But as luck would have it, they chanced upon a register that kept the record of the quantity of chemicals used on a given day. From this, they worked out the composition of the fast-burning powder.
Sivakasi to Calcutta, a journey beyond big
After eight months in Calcutta, the duo returned to their village and established the first match-works unit in Sivakasi in 1923. They had even imported a machine from Germany to fully automate the process.
However, the youth soon realised the advantage of turning their unit into a cottage industry using the large labour force readily available in their village.
They sold the machine, broke down the process into several stages, and trained their first batch of employees.
Their decision laid the foundation for Sivakasi as an industrial town.
The similarity between matchstick and firecracker manufacturing prompted them to set out on their second trip to Calcutta in the 1930s to learn the nitty-gritty of cracker making, said Ashokan, an industrialist from the town.
“They established the first cracker unit in Sivakasi soon after their return,” he added.
Their unit was able to churn out crackers cheaply, an advantage the cottage industry had over mechanised one.
The domestic cracker industry was given a shot in the arm when the Government of India restricted the import of explosives during the Second World War.
With the end of the war came Independence and resumption of raw material supply, spurring the industry to grow even bigger.
Riding on the hard work of Sivakasi workers and the steady demand from across an independent India, the cracker and match-stick manufacturing in the town boomed over the next several decades.
It is said that Jawaharlal Nehru once likened the industrious people of Sivakasi to those of Japan and called the town ‘Kutty Japan’.
However, the industry is now staring into a bleak future. Unit owners said the bans on crackers by many States and courts during the festival season, with pollution cited as a reason, have snuffed out the spirit of manufacturers, dealers, traders, and labourers.
(Part I of a two-part series)