Sitting amid the dense greenery in Kalpetta in the Wayanad region of Kerala, Lovely Saji carefully dips her paintbrush in a pot of black paint. With gentle but deft strokes, she paints beautiful outlines on a bamboo surface. One of the many murals she has painted so far.
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Lovely sighs with contentment. She finally has a job that affords her the financial strength to help her husband who works as a house painter. “I am financially supporting my family and being able to educate my daughters,” she beams, “I am happy that I am engaged in producing these beautiful art works. I have learnt so much over the years and I continue to get better at shading and coloring,” adds a happy Lovely.
This story replicates in more than 20 women artisans who work with Bhavm — a social enterprise started in 2005 which provides training to people in the ancient art of Chuvarchitram or Kerala Mural Painting.
Based in Wayanad in Kerala, Bhavm was started by husband-wife duo Sujith MP and Surya LR. The couple began the initiative for multiple reasons; to provide a source of livelihood to women in rural Kerala, preserve the art of Chuvarchitram and to encourage more people to learn this skill.
Since its inception, the couple has trained more than 50 people in the traditional art and has also disseminated their knowledge of the artform to about 500+ students across different colleges. Their enterprise Bhavm has also participated in 100+ exhibitions so far.
The Scope of Bhavm
Bhavm specialises in bamboo murals, painted terracotta tiles, jewelry, sarees, dupattas and even cotton indoor footwear. They even make hand painted fridge magnets, bookmarks, pen holders, and handcrafted bamboo string lights.
“This traditional artform uses only five colors, namely, yellow, blue, red, green and black for the purpose of painting the designs. Also, for the bamboo murals, we use natural colors,” says 38-year-old Sujith.
For Surya, 38, their bamboo mural paintings are definitely the masterpieces. “These paintings are carefully prepared, where the bamboo is procured from dense forests and villages. These bamboo is then washed and dried after which it needs to be whitewashed at least about 30 to 40 times before it is painted upon.”
He says that their unconventional jewelry pieces are quite popular. With beautiful faces painted on flat terracotta pendants, their jewellery a steady clientele. “My wife Surya also makes these beautiful pendants by painting on a small piece of mirror,” he smiles.
Bhavm—Reception and Impact
With a BA (Hons) in History from Calicut University, 42-year-old Lovely was struggling to raise her two daughters. Despite her degree, she was unable to find a suitable job. While discussing her financial problems with her friends, she came to know about a workshop being organised by an organisation called Bhavm. She found out that they were looking to train and work with artisans in their mural painting unit in Kalpetta.
“I joined Bhavm in 2011, and learnt the artwork by working with yellow paint that most beginners start out with. Eight years down the line, I now have mastered the art and put the finishing touches on these paintings,” smiles Lovely, who has a regular source of income now.
At the other end of the retail chain is Manjari Khan who is a big fan of Bhavm’s products. The 75-year-old is based in Vythiri and has loved handicrafts since she was a little girl.
“I read about Bhavm for the first time about 10 years back. Since their studio was in Kalpetta and not too far from where I live, I decided to go and look around,” she informs.
Khan was amazed when she visited the studio. “I liked the fact that the couple had a spirit to do things. I could see that the women living in the area were not only learning but also working there. When I went upstairs, it was a beautiful space that had been turned into a gallery,” she visualises.
Since then, the septuagenarian has bought multiple craft pieces from Bhavm like trays, jewelry, bamboo mural paintings, and clay pots.
Founding and challenges
After finishing his BA degree in Political Science from Calicut University, Sujjith took up hotel management training in Wayanad. “But, this was not something my heart was set on. That is why, when I heard about a workshop in Chuvarchitram, I immediately signed up for it,” he says.
Bhavm’s founders met at the art workshop at Uravu, an eco-friendly community tourism project, where they had signed up for a ten day course in Chuvarchitram.
The total strength of the class was 20 with Surya from Muttil, Wayanad, being one of them. After finishing the training, Sujith and Surya, along with a few others, went on to work at the bamboo mural section at Uravu. However, this unit shut down due to marketing-related issues.
The two then founded Bhavm in January 2005, and opened a small unit in Muttil. The duo started out by making canvas miniatures, painted terracotta tiles, plywood and other materials.
In 2008, they shifted their unit from Muttil to Kalpetta as they wanted easier access to courier services, more space and hire more people. In the same year, they started the Bhavm art gallery and began providing training to people who wanted to come and learn the art form.
“One of the biggest turning points for us was when we put up an exhibit for the first time outside the state in Bengaluru at a craft store known as Kala Madhyam. This provided us with the exposure we needed and made our work popular,” says Surya.
Sujith informed that they got a lot of enquiries after that which helped them put up displays at art societies like Dastakar and Sampoorn. The couple also conducted workshops in Delhi, Chennai and Coimbatore through the Crafts Council of India.
“We have even gotten the opportunity to teach at art schools like the Gulbarga Fine Art School and the Bidar Fine Arts School,” says Sujith.
A problem they frequently face is marketing their products and they’ve tried to remedy this issue by participating in more exhibitions.
Because Kerala experiences heavy rainfall, there are times when it becomes difficult for them to source their raw materials. There are also issues with power failure and logistics that are big deterrents to the production process.
The way forward for Bhavm
“We want to train more people and provide them with livelihood opportunities by adding them to our team. We also have this small piece of land in Thrikkaipetta, a heritage bamboo craft village. We want to convert this land into a studio-cum-training centre. We want to teach people who really want to learn and travelling all over becomes very difficult as we have a small team. Once this studio is established, it will be easier for us to share our knowledge,” says a hopeful Sujith.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)