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Weaving magic with flowers

T. Ramakrishnan and his assistant Ponnuswamy come up with striking floral backdrops for wedding pandals using traditional material such as plantain trees and flowers. A profile of the duo.

"MONEY COMES and goes. What makes the day is appreciation from the customer,'' says T.Ramakrishnan, `Manavarai Alankaram', Coimbatore, a leading contractor for wedding backdrop design. Besides his hometown, he works on the Pollachi, Erode, Udumalpet circuit, and at times in neighbouring States — as once for the Malayala Manorama family in Kerala, and in Chennai this year for the wedding of M. K. Stalin's son, Udayanidhi. "I will never forget how Stalin honoured us with a shawl on the occasion.''

The Kovai region is best known for its mills and commercial enterprises, not so much for arts and crafts. But attend a Naidu or Goundar wedding in Coimbatore and you will be stunned by the striking floral settings at the ceremony.

At a time when plastic flowers and tinsel streamers have become the norm, it is delightful to see how traditional organic material (plantain trees, palm fronds, koondal panai, pakku clusters and various leaves and flowers) can be combined in exciting new ways.

One pandal may stand out for its leaf parrots on creamy palm strip swings. Another may have mats hanging everywhere, coming to life with blushing roses. A third transforms bamboo frames into tapestries, glowing with delicate-tinted orchids.

What impresses you most is the wedding garland. The malais of jasmine and rose commonly available in the market, either wilt or shed petals midway through the function. Heavyweight javandi and sampangi are burdensome for the bride and groom. In contrast, the Coimbatore, pattu roja malai, (garland of red roses) which looks far too fragile to be durable, remains light, fresh and luminous throughout the proceedings. In fact, many first time visitors mistake it for a string of paper flowers.

Ramakrishnan tells you that this technique of garland making is a recent innovation. "I design everything according customer requirement, what he wants and how much he wants to spend. Some five years ago, there was a request for lighter malais. Some clients even wanted it designed like the garlands adorning the gods of calendar illustrations!'' he laughs. "We collaborated with our garland makers and came up with the idea of stringing not the whole rose, but its petals.''

As he talks, the flower seller Ponnuswamy's deft fingers demonstrate the design. With a single twist, he separates the rose petals from the stalk and sprinkles a few drops of water to keep them fresh. He next prepares eight plantain stem strips and twists them together to make a firm central strand. Every petal is rolled cylindrically and placed on it one by one and a thin string is passed over each to hold it in place. When all the petals are fixed round the central strand (with intermittent patches of green leaves and brown vettiver for contrast), the garland is ready for its pendant. Ponnuswamy fixes a lotus that day on request. He also strings a jasmine garland with crimson `velvet poo' to lend it sparkle.

You can mix and match to make a garland (and veni) to suit your sari's colour scheme. "We use gerberas, asters, carnations, chrysanthemums and so on, sometimes with silver, gold and silk threads for that festive touch. Orchid garlands can be exquisite, but they are expensive.'' (A pair of rose garlands costs Rs.3,000).

The long, huge "nilavu malai'' of vettiver and vadamalli remains fragrant for months. "All you have to do is spray water on it regularly.''

Says Ponnuswamy, "I come from a family of flower sellers. My great grandfather supplied flowers to temples, as my five siblings and I do now.''

A reliable assistant to Ramakrishnan, his skill is in demand not only for weaving wedding malas, but garlands for visiting political dignitaries as well. "I have been in this line for 15 years now. Business has certainly picked up in the last five years,'' says Ramakrishnan.

``People are willing to spend from Rs.75,000 to Rs.2 lakhs on wedding decoration. Sometimes the client is so satisfied, that he gives us not only gifts, but also more than the sum agreed upon. There have been changes, many new demands and needs.''

As Ramakrishnan and Ponnuswamy see it, one thing has not changed. And that is the need to change according to the needs of the times — with quality intact.

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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