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Coconut-leaf Figurines Made in a Jiffy Fascinate Biennale Visitors at Cabral Yard

In Kerala
December 31, 2018

Fast-vanishing toys and other cute objects made of coconut leaves found a fresh lease of life at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) today when a Kerala artist who has specialised in the craft began his workshop imparting the knowledge and skills to visitors at the art festival.

Children and adults huddled around middle-aged John Baby to imbibe his traditional techniques at the two-day Ola-Kalari workshop. Much like his new-found pupils sitting in a circle, onlookers at the ‘art room’ in Cabral Yard watched with wonder John conjuring up frogs, locusts, lotus buds, parrots, snake, music pipe, hats, snakes and even huts by plaiting coconut leaves in no time.

Such was the level of curiosity the session evoked that the policemen and women on duty at the leafy Biennale venue joined in to try a hand. Together, one corner of the 1.6-acre plot saw a flurry of figurines made of leaves from the coconut fronds piled in front of its slant-roof area.

Kochi-based John, 55, is a native of sylvan Veeyyapuram village near Haripad of coastal Alappuzha district. “As a child of a family with farmlands, my mother used to take me out to the paddy fields. There, the workers, during leisure hours, would teach me objects made of coconut leaves,” he winds back. “I found them extremely enchanting.”

Much later, in 1998, when the artist eventually chose to marry (sculptor Mini John), he happened to meet with a second round of activity with objects made from coconut leaves. “That was when we soon got children. A boy and a girl. I didn’t want to gift them with your typical plastic toys, that too guns and cars. I found them all violent,” he notes. “I went back to my childhood days. The simpler toys we used to play. So much more beautiful.”

John didn’t stop with just making them for his children. He began to travel across Kerala, meeting aged crafts-people who were adept in the art. “Be it Malabar, Kochi or Travancore, they do exist. But the numbers are dwindling. So, we now know the value of their art,” he adds.

Anna Pak of Russia was among the adults, eager to learn from John. “My country has palms, though not coconut, only in the southern side where the climate is somewhat warm,” revealed the young tourist from Moscow. “So I thought I’d carry some of these objects as toys for my little nephew back home.”

Little Dathe V K, who lives in suburban Edappally of Kochi, took a day’s break from his kindergarten today. “I am thoroughly enjoying this,” he says, chipping the edge of a coconut leaf carefully with a blade. “I plan to take some of the objects from here to my nursery class tomorrow and show my friends off.”

Blaise Joseph, who is director of the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s ‘Art By Children’ programme that is running the art room, noted that weaving and thatching have been one of the most ancient of human activities. “They are not just about art, but also self-reliance. Weaving helps us to make cloth, thatching is about raising houses,” he adds. The workshop will continue tomorrow (December 19, Wednesday).

It will be flowed by second workshop. From December 21 to 23, ‘art room’ will host artist Jayan V K’s session merging the art of pottery and sculpture. Jayan’s artworks are known for traditional charm while being open to contemporary styles