The aroma of freshly ground spices, ginger and garlic wafts through the afternoon air as one takes a stroll on the KB Street in Kottaiyur in Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region. Chettinad is well known for its spicy cuisine, which uses boiled egg as a garnish in most of the dishes. But the use of eggs is not limited to food. Egg whites have also been an integral part of wall plasters of Chettinad homes for centuries. The mirror-like, shiny interior walls not only reflect the age-old way of beating the scorching heat but also carry the pride of masons, who have been passing on the egg white plaster technique from generation to generation.
On K B Street also stands the house where mason SP Mookkiah used for the first time the centuries-old lime egg plaster technique, which is slowly reclaiming its glory after being on the verge of extinction some years ago.
Chettinad, in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district, is known for its majestic mansions and concentrated clusters of Nattukottai Chettiars, a rich and affluent mercantile community. The architectural style of the mansions has stood the test of time, modernity and convenience.
Just like cement plaster, Chettinad plaster is also used in the final stage of wall finishing. The bricks are covered with multiple layers of white lime mortar and plastered with the egg-lime mix. “This layer is different not only because of the composition of the plaster but also because the final texture is soft, shiny yet firm,” Mookkiah says.
Besides, the wall doesn’t require regular painting unlike other plastered walls, points out Visalakshi Ramaswamy, who started the M.Rm.Rm. Cultural Foundation in 2000 to support and document works towards the revival of rural crafts, textiles and architecture. Her other projects include kottan — the traditional palmyra basketry; kandanghi saris and athangudi tiles of Chettinad.
73-year-old Mookkaiya from Karaikudi and his son, are among the last skilled masons practicing this craft. Originally carpenters, the family has been keeping Chettinad plastering alive for four generations now. Last year, the Crafts Council of India awarded Mookkiah for his contribution towards the ‘Revival of Languishing Crafts’.
Egg lime plastering technique
Mookkiah explains that the plaster is made by grinding three portions of sand to one portion of limestone. The dry mixture is allowed to settle for about 3-4 days. The masons procure conches and shells from the coastal areas of Ramanathapuram and Thoothukudi. They are powdered and added to the limestone mixture. Finally, kalmavu podi or whitestone powder is added to the dried powder mix.
Evenly spreading and rubbing of the walls gives it a neat, finished and mirror-like look. The strong white finish comes from the sea shells and it keeps the room bright and cool.
“As calm as the sea, the shells used to plaster the walls give a soothing effect, as if one is under the cool and timid underwaters,” says Mookkiah.
The cost factor
However, the six-layer process is laborious, making it less attractive for the younger generation. “Lack of skilled masons and higher costs compared to other construction methods led to a decline in the popularity of this technique,” Mookkiah says.
Ramaswamy, however, says the walls are built for posterity and do not require maintenance in the form of repair and paints. That cuts costs in the long run. “Moreover, some other techniques today are far more expensive than Chettinad wall plastering,” she adds.
Most youngsters left in search of better livelihoods, leaving Chettinad with a dwindling population and no one to pass on the knowledge and artistry to.
Moreover, some people began to move away from the technique because some of the raw materials are derived from animals. “While most of the cultural aspects of Chettinad thrived and brought tourism to this place, the egg-lime plaster technique somehow found no takers. “Most of the artisans who have mastered the techniques are over 50 years of age,” he says.
However, now Mookkiah as well as M.Rm.Rm. Cultural Foundation are working towards restoration of this craft. Mookkiah’s son is following in his footsteps. The father-son duo has completed projects in Pondicherry besides working for some clubs and hotels.
Currently, in Chettinad, there are seven skilled artisans, including Mookkiah, who are using this technique. Students of architecture also come to him to learn and incorporate egg-lime plaster in their work in the hope of becoming Chettinad architects some day.
Mookkiah has been training masons and workers from across the country, including Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Odisha and Telangana. The M.Rm.Rm Cultural Foundation, flag bearer of the revival of the craft, had also conducted workshops for masons.
But training is not enough. It is necessary that people acknowledge this craft and commission the services of masons for the technique to grow. “It ultimately depends on the people who choose to see its beauty and participate in its resurrection,” Ramaswamy adds.
(Lead pic: through M.Rm.Rm. Cultural Foundation )
(Anusha Sundar is a Tamil Nadu-based journalist specialising in environment, gender, culture and mental health issues)