Arts and handicrafts are an invaluable part of Kerala’s heritage. Among these metal crafts have the pride of place. Bell-metal casting is an age old industrial art. It involves mainly two activities. Images or idols of deities made out of copper, bronze and brass are used for consecration in temples and other religious purposes. Huge molds(shallow basins of hemispherical shape),multi-layered lamps and utensils of daily use are all made of these metals. These products are crafted to perfection.
Lamps of exquiste beauty are made by these traditional craftsmen. The Greek lamp (Changalavatta), the Archana lamp, the Arati Dipa etc., deserve special mention in this context. The Aranmula metal mirror has attained fame among the products of the bell metal products. An outcome of an accident in metal casting, it is made of an alloy of copper and tin and resembles the mirror in every respect. The Koftagari work, one of the popular metal crafts of India, is also practiced by a few artisans in Trivandrum. Figures of deities, landscapes, floral designs and fancy articles of a wide range are produced by this process.
Woodcraft is another the ancient arts of Kerala as is testified to by the temples and churches of the State which abound in wood carvings. Items of furniture like chairs, tables settees, sofas, almirahs, cots, radio castings etc., and models of animals and deities, toys and Kathakali accessories produced by Kerala craftsmen are very much in demand. The models of caparisoned elephants and the carvings of Kathakali dance-dolls are items of popular demand.
The craftsmen of Kerala have also developed a variety of handicrafts using the rich wealth of flora in the State. Screwpine mat weaving is one of such handicrafts. Such articles as pillow covers, cushions, vanity bags, purses, hats etc., are also made of screw pine. The art of weaving bamboo-reed mats, baskets and fancy articles is also one of the simplest of Kerala handicrafts. Kora grass is similarly used for making mats of different sizes and colours. Rattan is used in the manufacture of articles of daily use like chairs, settees, teapoys, cradles, trays, shopping bags and a variety of other utility-cum-fancy articles. The coconut shell is used for the manufacture of such articles of utility and beauty as lamp stands, flower vases, ashtrays etc. Coir carpets and mattings produced in many attractive designs and colours find a ready market in India and abroad.
Lace and embroidery work of high quality is being done by women in several parts of Kerala. The Talangara village of Kasaragod taluk is famous for the textile cap making industry. The cotton caps manufactured here find a ready market in the African and Gulf countries.
Ivory carving is another traditional art of Kerala. The art was given an impetus by Swati Tirunal Maharaja. An ivory throne made by Swati Tirunal is still preserved as a show piece. The craftsmen engaged in this art at present produce a variety of models of mythological characters, animals, birds, cigarette cases etc., to cater to different tastes. A typical specimen of ivory carving produced in Kerala is that of the snake boat (Chundan vallam) and it is cherished by tourists to the State as a memento. The craftsmen engaged in ivory carving also use other materials like the buffalo born for practicing their art.
The jewelry of Kerala is noted for its artistic perfection. Each caste or community had its typical ornament. An ornament of the Nair women was Nagapadam or serpent hood, so called after the shape of the pendant. An ear ornament called Toda, a double convex disc, was worn after dilating the earlobes. Mukkuthi was an ornament for nose and Kappu for the wrist. The most important ornaments for the neck were Addyal, Yantram, Avil Mala and Puli Nakham. Cherutali was a kind of necklace worn loose over the breast by Namboodiri women while Kasu Mala and Oddyanam were used by Tamil Brahmin. A kind of heavy guilt brass ring called Mekka Motiram was worn by Christian women after boring their ears in several places. Ottezhapathakkam, Kombu, Tala etc., were also typical Christian ornaments. Though most of the traditional ornaments mentioned above have become defunct now, the Kerala women are still found of ornaments, and jewelry items like necklaces, bangles, chains, earrings, studs etc., are now made by Kerala goldsmiths in a variety of attractive designs.
Apart from the main crafts described above, there are also a few others which deserve mention. Granite carving is one such art, which is mainly centred in Chengannur. The granite workers manufacture a variety of articles like idols, household equipment, pillars, survey stones etc., which are in great demand. The manufacture of musical instruments like Chenda, Maddalam, Mridangam, Edakka etc., is done in some places.
The costumes and accessories required in Kathakali and Teyyam are being manufactured by some craftsmen. In Tellicherry, the home of Indian circus, the peculiar kinds of umbrella required by circus companies are manufactured. Being a maritime State, Kerala has its own handicrafts based on marine materials. Conch-shell articles like paper weight, pin cushions, ashtrayas, studs etc., are made by craftsmen in the Trivandrum area. In Kasaragod area articles like bangles, vanity bags and name boards are made of glass beads. Thus the legacy of Kerala in the field of arts and crafts is a rich and varied one.
Handicrafts in Kerala is either hereditary occupation or practised by amateurs who has great interest in the art. Kerala has the tradition of making beautiful handicrafts with ivory, bamboo, palm leaves, seashells, wood, coconut shells, clay, cloth, metals, stone etc. Many old handicraft classics can be seen in Palaces, old heritage homes, museums, etc. The artists are experts in making beautiful flower vases, ash trays, ornamental plates, jewel boxes, miniature boats, elephants, idols, kathakali masks, embroidery works, etc.
The ornaments, head gears and costumes for classical arts and ritual arts are entirely made by artists expertised in handicrafts. They make all necessary materials for Kathakali, Theyyam, Mudiyettu, Koodiyattam, etc.
They use the locally available turmeric, powdered rice, powdered leaves of Acacia etc. for making excellent colours and combination of colours for painting faces of performers, which is a very good example of handicrafts of Kerala.
Rather than an art the handicrafts have evolved into a small scale industry in Kerala. The making, domestic selling and exporting are increasing and now there are many institutes giving training in handicrafts.
Bamboo Craft of Kerala: Kerala is famous for its Bamboo Bonanza – Handicraft products made of Bamboo. House boats, models of ships, measure and any handicraft item you name can be produced with Bamboo.
Bringing ivory to life:Ivory carving handicraft has been an integral part of Kerala’s indigenous handicraft scenario for almost 200 years. The artifacts mostly include mythological figures and natural objects. Recently, ivory and wood have been skillfully blended together to create beautiful handicrafts. Perhaps the crowning glory of the Kerala ivory carver is the small seed shell (with a diameter of 0.5 cm) housing a ‘menagerie’ of a hundred or more miniature ivory elephants.
Mirror, mirror on the wall: Kerala’s traditional metal craft widely acclaimed world over ‘the Metal Mirror of Aranmula’ created by the highly skilled odu/bronze workers of the village of Aranmula, near Pathanamthitta, use metal alloy plates which were polished into a highly reflective surface, matching the reflective quality of glass mirrors.
Hand-woven extravaganza: Amongst the various types of hand-woven goods, Kerala’s kasavu saris find great favour among women all over the country and even abroad. Their remarkably fine count, texture and rich gold borders are the chief reasons for their unique appeal.
Other types of handicrafts include exquisite embroidery and lace work, Kora grass weaving to create a great variety of mats from the simple blades of grass, Palm fiber and leaf products and many more.