Lifestyles change, and with them change our means of living. With the growing times, there are certain professions that continue to be followed, but many are such that lose their importance in the present-day ‘technology-run’, ‘plastic’ world. During one of my visits to a small neighbourhood called Gandhinagar, placed in an unseen corner of the Panchayat run town, Thammampatti in Salem district, I came across this generations-old craft profession and the only thing I could think then, was to let people know about it.
I remember, having no any idea where I was going. I drove my scooter through narrow lanes following my field officer’s directions. We reached a neighbourhood called Gandhinagar and in front of us, I saw, a row of many thatched as well as some concrete houses standing on the road up a hill. All men and women being at work, and the kids at school, the locality was really quiet and serene. We drove on the white-cemented roads towards the top of the hill; the place where these people lived and worked. Nathiya, the first person I met there, was standing at the entrance of her house in a bright yellow saree holding her three-year-old daughter in her arms. She welcomed me into her house where this group of women were waiting for me. After a good hearty conversation, they asked me if I wanted to see some of their work. Curiously, I followed them through the narrow paths towards the backside of the house.
This amazing craft business has been running down through generations in the area. People, especially the women living in the area are involved in weaving fresh and dry coconut palm leaves or ‘streaks’ to make roofs, sheds, gates, etc. The dry leaves are put together and are used as roofs and doors for thatched houses and fresh green ones are used as a festive decor in the local area.
“I used to see my grandmother weave and braid the leaves, and before I knew anything, I also joined in weaving these with her.”
Chandra, the craftswoman was fondly reminiscing about her childhood days. She has been weaving coconut leaves since last 40 years, and with her husband since last 35 years. Thanks to the couple I could get the essence of the changes happening to the profession over the years.
They purchase some 10 packs of these leaves, each pack consisting of around 50 leaves. Pack by pack they soak them in water for a period of two to three days for the leaves to get a little soft. About the availability of water, Veeramutthu (Chandra’s husband) had much to say:
“Water is a major problem here. We need at least 5 to 6 buckets of water to soak the leaves properly or else they turn brittle and hard to weave.”
Being situated on a hill, the ground-water is not available here. They have to purchase water from the local authorities which are delivered to them once every 25 days. The people fill and store water in whatever container they have in their houses, and try storing it till the next round of supply.
“We don’t have any proper tanks for storing water, and storing water in these containers is an open invitation to mosquitoes and other vector-borne diseases.”
The daughter of another craftswoman, Nathiya, fell sick and was diagnosed with dengue last year. She and the other people are worried about their family’s health and are slowly trying to quit this profession for a disease-free life. “We don’t have many options here, we can either choose to continue this work that our ancestors have taught us and see the people get sick, or we find some other work which will get us a considerably good pay and a healthy life!”, exclaimed one of the women in the group.
Besides weaving these leaves, the women here also make “koochi-vaaral”, that is the wooden broom from the leftover wasted leaves. They cut the dried leaves in thin slices using a small paper-cutter and arrange and tie all the slices together. Sometimes, only for household purposes, they also make coconut oil from the dried nuts that usually people leave behind on the trees.
Sadly, this profession is slowly dying. The dry coconut-palm leaves are used only in the villages, and with all the development happening around, people these days prefer plastic or asbestos sheets as roofs and doors. Chandra said, “Those are a little costly, but choices and priorities are changing”, with a sad face. Both her sons are married and work in some companies. Her husband said with a disheartened voice that their life had all been about bringing these leaves, drying them, weaving and selling them to the local people.
It is sad how a more than ten-generation-old profession could die out in this way. Having no one to pass on the know-how of the craft culture, the profession stands on the brink of extinction. Of this fading of Thattai into oblivion, Veeramutthu said:
“Of course it is sad, but what can you do? I’ve made a living for over 30 years, climbing these trees, but in a few years, people won’t even know that there was a profession like this. They wouldn’t know how difficult it is or how important it once was… for at least a few people like us..”
This is not only here, but in many parts of rural Tamil Nadu, that such professions are losing their stability due to the educated young crowd moving out of the villages and wanting to work in the global MNCs. Also, if they do want to continue the age-old profession, there are problems like water scarcity, or, like in this case, lack of proper storage and drainage facilities that force them to quit the business. Another culture will disappear; another cultural knowledge will go extinct; another one we would not see in the museums, because even they don’t know.