Carving a Story in Stone
Stone sculptors of Mamallapuram keep their 1,500 year old legacy alive
There's the unmistakable sound of chisel on stone, the minute you enter the ancient town of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, which was once the capital of the Pallava dynasty. On either side of the road, one can find hordes of sculptures lined up, mostly of goddesses with folded hands, as if to welcome you.
The intricacy of the craftsmanship is sure to make one stop and gaze. From dawn to dusk, the now popular tourist destination resounds with the sound of chisel and hammer, and stone dust rises in the air. This has been the way of life here for more than 1,500 years. But the artisans here say that this could very well be the last generation to continue the trade.
There are about 2,000 sculptors here. Most of their families have been in the trade for more than three generations. While in the past, the sculptures were mainly made for temples, in the last few decades, there's been a great demand for the sculptures by tourists, especially foreigners. Some of the sculptors here have now found work in other states and even other countries like China.
Jayaseelan (31), one of the artisans, points to the sculptures lined up outside his factory, "I've been trying to sell these for months. The demand has certainly come down, especially since we haven't had many foreign tourists in the last few years."
Artisans like Jayaseelan have been relying a lot on foreign tourists as they place orders for sculptors for their homes and gardens. Indians and the Indian diaspora require sculptures for building new temples. "I have been doing this since I was 14. My family stays close to this town and I was always interested in learning the art, so I came here to learn. Nowadays, the hand held tools are replaced with machines. It definitely makes the work easier, but this is also causing a lot of health issues because of the dust that comes out. It has caused breathing problems and eye infections in a lot of people," he said.
He added, "I take about 15 days to make a small sculpture, a big one can even take up to a month. When I started working, my salary was Rs 5. Now I have started my own business, so things are better. Sometimes tourists buy what we have already made, sometimes, we get specific orders."
Bhaskaran (45), another artisan said, "I've been doing this for 25 years. I can see that the demand for this art is going down steadily. Although we have machines now, there are other challenges that come with it. For instance, we always need to depend on electricity. Whenever the power is out, we have to go home."
Bhupathi, a factory owner, has employed about 15 artisans, and his family has been in the trade for over three generations. Speaking about the process behind these intricate artforms, he said, "first, we need to locate good stones. We usually get it from quarries and mostly use granite and marble. Once we locate a good stone, we insert pegs and then hammer to cut the stone into the desired size. These stones are transported to our workshops where a craftsman draws the image to be carved. Once the artisans begin carving, each sculpture can take anywhere from a few days to a month, depending on the size."
Thanks to the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture, the art has been sustained over the years. There are still a lot of young students who take up courses in stone sculpting. But as the demand for the sculptures is decreasing, the next generation is wary about following in their parents' steps.