Carved With Love At

Woodcarving is a dying art. Even in India’s rustic and folk traditions, not many appreciate the artisan’s passion to keep this art alive in the face of modernity.

In India, P. Sengottuvel is an example of someone continuing the woodcarving legacy he inherited from his forefathers.

Armed with a wooden hammer and various sized chisels to make impressions, Sengottuvel toils daily in a shed in his home in a village called Thammampatti, 60km from the city of Salem in Tamil Nadu, India.

In the village, there are about 60 artisans working on this craft and the numbers are dwindling every day as the elderly artisans retire. Despite having a degree in chemistry, Sengottuvel has chosen to become a woodcarver because he didn’t want to see the art die off.

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” he says in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

“My father taught me (to work with wood) when I was a little boy and I would spend after-school hours learning from him. I tried to do the same with my three kids but they’re just not interested.”

First, Sengottuvel learnt how to make jewellery and bit by bit, moved on to bigger things. Back home, Sengottuvel has made a name for himself as an expert in statues and panels.

“My grandfather was also a craftsman and he made chariots for temples. My father is still at it (woodcarving). Last year, he was awarded the Living Treasure (award) by the state of Tamil Nadu. I’m still not as good as him,” says the humble 48-year-old.

Sengottuvel, who listens attentively, carefully draws out his work process in this interview.

He obtains the raintree wood from sawmills and begins working as soon as orders pour in from all over the world.

“Most of the carvings are done on a single piece of wood. If it breaks open, we allow it to breathe for a few days, then we use another piece of wood to patch it up,” explains Sengottuvel, who made his first journey out of India last week.

He recently exhibited his wooden carvings at the Artistic Treasures exhibition held at the Temple of Fine Arts, Kuala Lumpur.

His favourite piece to carve is the plump, astute elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha.

Ganesha is the deity that worshippers first recognise when they visit holy places in India. Known to be a legendary scribe, he utilises his broken tusk, which he frequently holds, to record parts of the Mahabharata epic.

“I have a penchant to carve Ganesha because I feel a certain joy every time I do it. He appears in a lot of my carvings. I’ll have many visions in my head, and will draw it on the wood. The eyes are the most difficult to carve because they chip easily,” says Sengottuvel.

Throughout his career, Sengottuvel has carved musical Ganeshas, sleeping Ganeshas and baby Ganeshas.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice the minute detailing in his work. It can only come from years of practice and discipline. These carvings, as he says, can be used as furniture, ornaments, or for worship. They combine form and function.

Among his other prominent works is the yali, a mythical creature seen at the entrance of Hindu temples. It is the guardian of the premises though many these days put it inside their houses as a decorative item.

Each piece is smoothened with sandpaper, and treated with oil to keep away insects. Varnish is not used. On the rare occasion that people want coloured carvings, Sengottuvel’s wife helps him to paint.

For his work, the talented Sengottuvel has also clinched many awards, which he attributes to “God’s gift”.

“I’m always thrilled when I walk into a restaurant or temple or places that have my carvings. It stares at me and I stare back at it. There is a connection.”

Not only does Sengottuvel do his own designs, he also does commissioned works. Proudly, he says he never has stock as everything sells out fast. Depending on the size of the carving, it can take him several weeks to months to make one.

Sengottuvel spends six to seven hours on his craft daily, only getting up for meals or when his knee starts to ache.

He has six assistants to help out.

“It’s 100% handwork. I’m not saying it’s easy but there is so much fulfilment in the art. How I wish one of my children will carry it on.”