Pandemic takes the shine off temple and Bharatanatyam jewellery for Vadasery craftsmen

The jewellery makers, for whom the puja season is usually a busy time, have been left with no work

The September-January period is usually a busy one for temple and Bharatanatyam jewellery makers of Vadasery, in Kanniyakumari district. Beginning with the puja season, their hands are full till the end of the music-and-dance season in Kerala and Chennai.

This year, however, the master craftsmen are facing a double whammy, with the lockdown and a steep hike in the prices of gold and silver.

“During a normal puja season, I am showered with orders from Kerala, the United States and other places, as jewellery for Bharatanatyam is a part of the salangai pooja conducted by the dancers. I would struggle to complete the orders in time. Now, however, I am left with no work,” lamented M. Muthusivam, a winner of the State government’s award. His father Manikkam is a national-award winner.

As many as 40 families in Vadasery are traditionally involved in making temple and Bharatanatyam jewellery. They have been given the Geographical-Indication (GI) mark by the Geographical Indications Registry.

Hit by lockdown

Known as Vadasery maalai, the products are in demand across the country and abroad. Non-resident Indians who visit Chennai for the arangetram of their daughters during the December season buy jewellery from them.

But the lockdown has forced many of them to eke out a livelihood by taking up menial jobs.

“In the first two months [of the lockdown] I was able to pay salaries to the workers from my pocket. Diminishing orders made it impossible for me to pay them and they have taken up jobs such as white washing and carpentry,” said S. Muthusamy, another craftsman.

He has, in the past, made jewellery for the ISKCON temple in Bengaluru and Devanathaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

Making temple jewellery is a unique craft. The jewellery is made of 75% silver and 25% gold. First, they make moulds in silver, and fill it with wax for fixing semi-precious stones and small leaves made of gold. Precious stones are used for the ornaments. One side of the jewellery is gold-plated to give them a finishing touch.

“A gram of gold costs ₹3,800. Since we get gold in the form of small leaves, the price goes up to ₹5,500. People who enquire about the jewellery do not place orders since the price has gone up,” said Mr. Muthusivam.

S. Ramachandran, who has made jewellery for dancers like Padma Subramaniam and Chitra Visweswaran, said he had not received even a single order in the current season.

“A set of ornaments for a Bharatanatyam dancer costs ₹1.20 lakh. Many of them opt for imitations as they can buy a set for ₹20,000. If the situation continues, it will be difficult for us to sustain work,” said Mr. Ramachandran, requesting the government to procure their products through Poompuhar.

Faced with uncertainty, Mr. Muthusivam has asked his two sons — both engineering graduates — not to enter the family profession. “How can I encourage them to take up my profession? I do not want them to suffer like me,” he said.

Mr. Muthsamy said he was planning to ask his cousin Thangavel to focus on a different job. “I do not want a loan or money; just a market for my products. Let the government arrange it through Poompuhar,” he said.

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