Ageing beauty of a dying art

Tamil Nadu is known for its vividly colourful fascinations, from clothing, to food and even homes, it is ever so likely to have a dash of warm and vibrant colours. One such attribute of a traditional Tamil Nadu home would be its striking flooring patterns and colours.

The roots of these distinctively designed flooring patterns can be traced back to a village known as Chettinadu. The saga starts as a community of traders known as ‘Chettiars’, courtesy of their expansive trade networks were introduced to various construction materials and elements used abroad in Europe and Asia.

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The Italian marble, Japanese Majolica tiles and the Encaustic cement tiles thus made an entry into the South Indian architectural scenario when they were brought to India by the Chettiars to decorate their regal mansions.

Being a foreign commodity, the repair and maintenance works on these tiles were an added expense over time. This realization prompted the Chettiars to set up a manufacturing unit for similar tiles in a village called Athangudi, where the required raw materials were in abundance.

The indigenous Athangudi tiles thus bore great similarities to the Majolica tiles from Japan and the famous Encaustic cement tiles from Europe.

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Right from the technique of construction, the floral and geometric patterns to the basic sizes of templates or tiles, all of which were partially or wholly mimicked for the production of Athangudi tiles.

These imported tiles were however known for its relatively dull palette of blues and greens, a feature that didn’t ideally reciprocate the Tamilians love for colour.

The artists thus added their own tweaks to the Athangudi tiles and put forth an array of designs similar to their foreign counterparts but in a plethora of vivid colors and combinations.

The Athangudi tile making units thus flourished and had a lot of takers due to its distinct character, charm, long life and versatility of usage.

Since the manufacturing process was human labour oriented no well-equipped sophisticated machinery was used for production. Each tile was hand-made and crafted to perfection in small cottage industry modeled units, often simple thatch roofed structures on wooden or stone pillars.

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The units were mostly completely or partially open to the outdoors since the continuous cycle of production involved ease of movement and transportation of the tiles between various stages of production, and also to battle the intense heat during day time.

The process behind the making of these beautiful tiles is nothing short of an art form in itself. The speed, the precision, the mixing of colours, the systematic stacking, all of which follows a rhythmic cycle that repeats on itself day after day, tile after tile; and therein lies the inherent aura of the Athangudi tiles, handcrafted with love.

This feature takes us through a brief run over on the various materials used, stages of manufacturing, the types of tiles based on the different patterns and how tile patterns are usually developed from the traditional ‘Kolam’ models.

Materials

One of the primary pre-requisite materials required for tile making is the stencil and frame. The frame determines the size and profile of the tile, while the stencil holds the different patterns as required for the particular tile.

The smooth-edged brass stencil enables intricate floral and geometric patterns possible in the tiles while ensuring an extended durability. Some stencils are transferred in use for over 50 to 80 years.

The craft of making these stencils is extremely precision oriented and highly specialized, it is therefore still restricted to a very few revered goldsmiths in Athangudi.

The tiles are known for its characteristic sheen, attributed to the use of a simple glass plate the next primary material required for its production. Float, frosted or textured glass can be used to play with the final finish and texture of the tile.

The vibrant colours of the tile is brought in through various cement oxides. Six base colours of red, blue, green, yellow, black and white while the other tones are derived from mixing these in various proportions.

Cement, local sand and coloured oxide is mixed in water in a ratio of 3:2:1 and churned for 15-30 mins to give a uniform fine dry mix. Trial and error method is adopted for obtaining different shades, while the regular colours have fixed proportions.

Along with these, a cement dry mix (local sand and cement-3:1), cement wet mix (local sand, cement and water-3:1:5) and tools such as ladles/funnels (used for pouring the colour mixes) are used for the making of the Athangudi tiles.

The tile along with the glass is then stacked in shade for 10 days followed by curing in water for two nights. The glass is then subsequently removed and reused for making tiles over and over.

The edges are then smoothened and sent for packaging. The packaging process involves each individual tile being carefully wrapped in paper and tightly packed in cardboard boxes for transportation to the various locations.

Since the edges are fragile, packaging, loading and unloading process is done with maximum care.

In the 1920’s, when the Chettiar’s started the manufacturing of Athangudi tiles there were only a mere three units, but over the years the number of tile production units have climbed to almost 40.

The popularity and demand for these uniquely exquisite tiles is on the rise, but the flip-side story isn’t one that is glee. The labour-oriented small scale industry, dependent on the skills of a handful of artisans, goldsmiths and craftsmen, the younger generation of which have branched out to other professions, pose a question on how long the true lineage in the production of genuine indigenous Athangudi tiles would continue.

Standing time tested for close to hundred years, the vernacular techniques and traditions of the craft of producing these tiles are heading for a slow death.   

This article is based on the dissertation titled ‘Athangudi flooring tiles’ by Ar. Sarath Babu, guided by Ar. Shailaja Nair (Asso. Professor, Dept. of Architecture, CET)

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