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Etched in time

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The signpost outside Hut No. 21 at Sargaalaya Arts and Crafts Village in Kozhikode, Kerala, reads ‘Special Metal Engravings & Decorative Paintings’. On the walls inside hang framed sheets of embossed and etched aluminium, fabric paintings, pen sketches and cartoons. Amid these works of art are two photographs featuring the winners of the Grand Kerala Tourism Crafts Award 2015-16 in August 2016. “That’s me,” announces Vasudevan Chethil, the resident metal-etcher at Sargaalaya, pointing to himself in the pictures.

Sargaalaya, where Chethil has been residing since 2013, is a crafts cluster set up by the Kerala Tourism Department to provide a profitable platform for artisans. “I won the award for my portrayal of Gandhiji’s Dandi March, etched on an aluminium sheet. It now adorns the office of the Tourism Department in Thiruvananthapuram.”

Aluminium is the smoothest and most malleable of metals for etching, explains Chethil, as he cleans an aluminium sheet with paint thinner. He applies a light coat of primer and then a layer of enamel paint. After it dries, he uses chisels of various shapes and points to delicately scratch away at the layer of paint. Seven chisels, an aluminium sheet, thinner, primer and enamel paint in primary colours are all that Chethil needs to create his stunning marvels of portraits, landscapes, flowers, animals and birds.

Chethil takes an average 10 days to complete a frame but, ever since he won the award, he has been keen on taking up something even more challenging. “Etching human portraits is very tricky. You make a slight error and you have to start afresh. I did my first portrait of [Sachin] Tendulkar two years ago. Now I plan to create portraits of public personalities and do a series of engravings on the scenic beauty of Kerala. They will make good souvenirs,” says the artist, whose clientele mainly comprises tourists.

His tryst with metal etching began during his school days in Kozhikode, where he studied it as a subject in ‘work experience’ at school. He later acquired a bachelor’s degree and undertook a teacher’s training programme, while he simultaneously apprenticed under P V Narayanachari, an artist of great repute in Kerala. When he retired as an art teacher at Malabar Christian College High School, Kozhikode, Chethil joined Sargaalaya, where students learn his rare metal craft. And while teaching is its own reward, he is not shy of flaunting his recent award. “After all, no matter the age, a pat on the back never hurts.”

—Chitra Ramaswamy

Photo: J Ramaswamy
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
April 2017