Third generation Kerala craftsmen keep tradition of ‘Nettur petti’ alive

Craftsmen have no idea how Nettur petti got its name. “It is also known as Malabar petti, and we feel it might have imbibed the name from a village along the Malabar coast,” Suresh said.
Many swear they still keep their valuables in ‘Nettur petti’ as part of the tradition, and some believe it is a symbol of luck and prosperity. (Vivek R Nair/HT)
Many swear they still keep their valuables in ‘Nettur petti’ as part of the tradition, and some believe it is a symbol of luck and prosperity. (Vivek R Nair/HT)
Published on Dec 20, 2021 12:18 AM IST
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By, Thiruvananthapuram

They are often called keepers of the treasure, but these treasure-trove makers are not rich. Makers of ‘Nettur petti’ (box), a handmade wooden jewel box often used by aristocratic families, rich and temple bodies in south India to keep their ornaments and valuables intact, are just trying to keep the glorious tradition and craftsmanship alive.

A nostalgic piece, many still keep these wooden boxes intact, and for others, it is a showpiece now. V V Suresh Kumar and V V Ramesh Kumar, two brothers in the state capital, third-generation craftsmen, are keeping their tradition alive. Their handmade products blend beauty, elegance and tradition and they are much sought after even these days, where better storage facilities are available. Many swear they still keep their valuables in ‘Nettur petti’ as part of the tradition, and some believe it is a symbol of luck and prosperity.

“Generally rosewood is used to make these boxes. But now we use mahogany, teak and jackfruits timber also. Brass is used for embellishment. Everything, including the lock, handle, nails, hinges and cover are made by hand. Later, we paint it with vegetables’ colours,” he said, adding it takes days together to make a reasonably-sized box. He said many customers often seek specifications and different embellishments, and they make it accordingly.

“Once we get the wood, we treat it properly and starts chiselling and modelling it according to our needs. Modelling and moulding are cumbersome. Everything is handmade, so the cost escalates. The situation was really bad, forcing my brother once to go to the middle-east to pursue some other jobs,” Suresh Kumar said, explaining the rigours of traditional craftsmen. Ramesh is back and runs a small stall at the arts and crafts village in Vellar on the outskirts of the capital city.

Besides jewel boxes, they make different boxes. Kathakali Petti (to keep dance costumes), ari petti (rice box), spice petti, chella petti (betel nut box) and kaipettti (briefcase like wooden box to keep records) are some of them. They are also specialized in making ‘Manichitrathazu’ (ornate lock), which became famous after the 1993 semi-horror Malayalam movie of the same name.

Craftsmen have no idea how Nettur petti got its name. “It is also known as Malabar petti, and we feel it might have imbibed the name from a village along the Malabar coast,” Suresh said.

“My father Viswanathan Achari was an award-winning craftsman, and he was with Natesan’s, a popular antiqarts chain of south India. After his long stint, he came back to the state capital and founded an art school in Thiruvananthapuram to train youngsters,” said Ramesh Kumar, adding after his father’s death they tried to run it but was forced to close it later. Now, they employ less than 10 workers, most of them their relatives, and run a making unit in their home. Sadly, youngsters are missing from the workforce.

“We want to run an art school and train youngsters, but we don’t have the wherewithal. For artists also, returns are meagre. If machine-made stuff is available for one-fifth of the price of handmade people usually go for them. But many still realize rigours of handmade boxes,” said Suresh Kumar.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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Monday, May 23, 2022