The coconut shell – a versatile raw material – has several innovative uses. The coconut shell – generally thrown away as a waste material – can and was shaped by some as a kitchen spoon, using one half of a cracked shell. It was also used as a mould for making sweetmeats, a tradition that continues to this day. The two covers used to press the mixture by hand were carved with traditional floral and leaf designs. In temples the shell was fitted onto a handle and was used to pour or sprinkle water.
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Coconut-shell water dippers soon acquired a prestigious position and became collector’s items. The carvings on some of them were very exquisite; some of the carved shells were even silver-mounted. Other related products made from these shells included spoons, forks, cake trays, hair pins, and ice cream cups, all popular, utilitarian items.
Some decorative items like moving tortoises and ash trays are also made. Here the outer shell is cleaned and polished without any processing. The entire nut was used for crafting bangles and cuff-links. The contents within the shell were removed by boring a hole on the shell. This was then cleaned thoroughly and cut or carved according to the design required. The final stage in the craft-process was to polish or paint the shell. The tools and equipment used for this were small fret-saw, hand-drill, chisel, sharp knife and the equipment required for polishing.
The real challenge and innovation in the use of a coconut-shell is seen in the ‘stretched out’ coconut-shell technique. This was begun as an innovation by R. Gunatilaka, whose family kept this technique as a closely guarded secret. Simple rounded coconut shells are transformed into forms and shapes that enable one to create unique designs out of them.
The products made showcase a skilful combination of design and technique obtained from years of research and application in the processing of coconut-shell. The technique has been mastered so well by R.Gunatilaka that one shell can stretch up to a length of twenty feet! The musical instrument esraj has been made by him using a combination of coconut-shell, ivory, ebony, etc.
Along the western coastal belt a large number of artisans are engaged in the coconut-shell craft as supplies of the raw material are readily available at very reasonable prices.