An elderly, wiry framed man sits at a loom, glancing at his visitors for the day, granting them a small smile before turning his attention to the warp threads in front of him. When we tell him we would like to know more about his craft, he gets up without hesitance and chats warmly. In the background, one of his two protégés is working away at another loom, weaving patterns with Kora grass that will soon become a beautiful mat.
C Ayyappan, the unassuming master artisan behind this craft, hails from Chelakkara, Kilimangalam- a village on the banks of the Nila, at Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur district. He has been working at Sargaalaya Kerala Arts and Crafts Village, Iringal, and assures the sustenance of this precious handicraft that was practiced by his ancestors. The traditional grass mats, known as “pulpaya” are some of the oldest utilitarian handicraft items of the state. The weaving is a complicated and time- consuming process implemented using a low beam floor loom in the ribbed plain weave. Sedge grass, known as Kora, grows profusely in Kerala’s marshy regions. It is harvested, dried, dyed and woven into exceptionally fine mats in a range of sizes.
Ayyappan is around 75 years old and has been weaving pulpayas for almost 60 years now. He sources high quality Kora grass from villages situated near swamplands and dyes them himself using only natural dyes such as sappanwood (‘pathimugham’)derivatives that yield various shades upon boiling the rushes in a number of washes consecutively. Two washes make it scarlet, a couple more brings out a deep violet. A further wash with green grass makes it turn royal blue. It is truly magic at work. We ask the wizard where he gets his designs from and whether he customises them for his buyers. He says the patterns just come to his mind when he sits down to weave and that decades of experience helps him to place the dyed warp and weft with ease. No buyer has ever asked him for a customised design as all his creations are highly coveted and no argument is brooked when he states prices of 1000/- and upwards for the various mats he makes. He reminisces that his parents and grandparents trained him in this art and that all the members of his village used to weave for a living a long time ago. The loom that occupied a place of pride in every home slowly shifted to outdoor cottage industry units and cooperative societies that started making a profit for themselves. As time went by, the age old craft became too expensive to buy and the maintenance and effort required also proved taxing. Each generation moved out and away, migrating to cities for other jobs and the weaving started to die out.
Ayyappan remained loyal to his vocation and, with the help of Sargaalaya, perseveres to revive and sustain the practice. His wife passed away a few years ago and his son was unable to do the weaving on his own, which left Ayyappan as the sole practitioner of Kora grass weaving in his community. Earning the title of Master Artisan of the Year 2017, constituted by the International Craft Awards, or the UNESCO awarding its seal of excellence to the indigenous “Kilimangalam Pulpaya” in 2006 hasn’t changed Ayyappan in the least. He is still a humble weaver, happy about the fact that his patrons come back to watch him work, and proud of the two young weavers under his tutelage who will ensure that this craft will live on.