Coconut Shell, Fiber, Coir & Stem Craft of Kerala

Craft, Handloom, Art, Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Micro-history, Art History

Coconut Shell, Fiber, Coir & Stem Craft of Kerala

George, Ligi


Coconut trees grow all over Kerala, and the coconut is a fruit which is used in its entirety. Smaller coconut shell articles are also made in Trivandrum, Attingal and Neyyatinkara, while larger items are made in Quilandy in Kozhikode district in north. Every part of the ubiquitous coconut tree is effectively utilized in this region – the flesh of the coconut is eaten, its fiber spun into coir, graded and used for a huge variety of uses or burnt for fuel; the stem turned into tables, chairs, banisters, vases, incense stick holders; the husk into figures of monkeys and Buddha heads; the shell with its natural concave shape converted into a enormous number of items that include paperweights, lidded containers with brass handles, cups, bowls, ladles, spoons, snuff boxes, sugar basins, powder boxes, trays with compartments, soap dishes, hookahs etc. The tools used are the Patiyaram the steel saw and a variety of chisels. The process followed is relatively simple though skill and a sure hand are necessary. First the outer surface of the hard coconut shell is smoothened with steel wool while the inner is smoothened with the aid of small chisels and the resultant surface is sandpapered. The separate pieces to make the final product are attached with screws. The first coat of polish is boot polish, after which a final coat of French polish is given. Craftspeople ingeniously make shapes by maximizing the natural curvature of the material. Koyilandi in the district of Kozhikode is renowned for its brass bordered coconut shell hookah these were made for the Arabs who had commercial trade links with Malabar Coast with the trend continuing till today, with most of the coconut shell products being produced for export. Other production centers are in Alappuzha; VaikomIrumbuzhikara in Koftayam district; Cherai in Ernakulam district; Koyilandi and Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram, Attungal and Neyyattinkara Thiruvananthapuram district. The ubiquitous use of coir in Kerala which is crafted into coir yarn, mats of all varities from simple to colored, embellished, inlaid to handwoven coir rope mats, mottled mats of yarn and compressed fiber mats to matting, rugs and carpets. In addition to organic, green, natural – a complete eco friendly material, coir is also exceptionally durable, being mothproof and resistant to fungi; additionally it is flame-retardant and anti static. Given its sterling natural qualities graded coir yarn is additionally used for different purposes such as the stuffing of couches and pillows, making cordage including large sized cables, saddles, brushes, fishing nets, upholstery, hats and finally, the manufacture of rubberized coil, a blend of coir and latex, which is used to pad mattress and cushioning. The coir craft can be largely seen in Chertala in Alappuzha district. Using tools that include air compressors, smoking chambers, hardboard moulds, gluing machine, traditional spinning wheels/raft, dyes, corridor mat press steel rods and weights the coir is treated and crafted into products. First the coconut husk is retted in the lagoons for between six to ten months. The softened husk is then beaten with wooden mallets and spun into coir yarn on the spinning wheel. The coir yarn is then woven into floor coverings either by handloom or by powerloom with colored coir yarn creating the patterns. During the finishing stage, the surface of the mats are sheared and then manually cut using clipping scissors. As in other weaving processes designs and patterns are also created through post weaving embellishment techniques such as hand beveling where the craftsmen manually trims the pile to define raised forms and stenciling. The edges of the coir mats are hand knotted; the craftsmen wears a home made rubber gloves for protection and support while pulling and pushing the thick needle through the tightly woven coir mat.

Gandhi ji’s three Monkeys who ‘See No Evil, Speak no Evil and Hear no Evil’ have found many forms and in Tiruvanathapuram they find form in coconuts. Each carved from a single un-joined coconut these sculptures are a rather incredible artistic feat. And they’ve got a shelf life of over a hundred years as coconut is an extremely resilient organic material, resistant to damage by termites and other insects. 

We were in conversation with Mr. Babu Raju at the Crafts Museum where he was displaying his skill and his wares. From S.P.S. Handicraft in Rajaji Nagar Tiruvanathapuram he was in Delhi with his master Mr. Prathap who was given the National award for an eagle he carved from single coconut husk piece in 1994.

Raw Materials, Process And Tools
The process of making monkeys from coconut goes through five different stages of cutting, shaping & polishing. The first step is the selection of the coconut as not all coconuts are good for carving. They must be flawless and have no surface ruptures to be suited for image making.

After the initial carving of the surface is completed it is left in sun till its colour turns to a typical monkey brown. Then the edible portion of the coconut is removed. The hardest task is shaping the face as it need careful attention to give the monkey the desired expression. Though seemingly simple, there is great skill and attention required to carve the monkey to the right measurements because if the proportions get distorted the coconut must be discarded. There is no scope for rectification.

The entire process is done with a chisel, mallet, sickle and foreign cutting blades. The tools are prepared to the craftsman’s own fashion & design. Sandpaper is used for the final touch. Ears and eyes and the foot are made from coconut nut shell. It is the hard wall protecting the edible portion which is tough to cut the determines the size of the monkey.

Product and Uses
The objects made from coconuts are quirky curios, commonly used for decoration. Though the focus here is the monkey trio other items include flower vases, pen stands, wall hangings, elephants and coconut trees. But the possibilities are limitless for these skilled craftsmen who see endless objects in the innocuous coconut.

As it is both time consuming and requires precise attention through the entire sculpting process, what is charged for the article is the workmanship. Coconut is a widely available raw material under no threat of extinction; it is not a precious mineral or metal. This crafts testifies to the fact that beauty lies not in the material but in the artistic realization of an innovative mind. And that though we bemoan the languishing crafts, we must also pay heed to the crafts that are thriving and through the introduction of new designs creating a market for themselves.


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