Pithy Craft

A ‘pithy comment’ is one which is terse and full of substance and meaning. The origin of the word pithy is from the Old English piþa “central cylinder of the stems of plants,” and therefore signifying “essential part, quintessence, condensed substance.”

Here is a tale of a pithy craft (not an official term!). This is the pith-work done using the innards of Aeschynomene Indica or Aeschynomene Aspera , a herbaceous plant of the bean family which grows in marshy waterlogged areas is the basis of a craft both in South and East India. Shola pith as it is called, is the inside of the plant, and ranges from soft, smooth, white (good quality) to hard, brittle, reddish (poor quality).

In South India, this craft-form is traditionally practiced in the Tanjore area. The most popular products are replicas of the Brihadeshvara Temple, Tanjore, the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai, the Malai Kovil of Trichy, etc. Taj Mahals and churches are popular too. While the proportions of the temple pieces would vary with the architecture of the original, typically, a pith-piece may be about 6”x10” and about 6-8” in height. They used to be a fairly common decorative item in Tamil homes a generation ago.

The pieces are made by first removing the outer brown skin of the plant by cutting it off with a sharp knife. The inner soft white portion of the stem is used to make the art pieces. The pith, known in Tamil as Netti, is cut into fine pieces of different designs and shapes as per the design, using a long knife for basic carving, and a tiny carving knife for detailing.  The carved pieces of pith are stuck together with adhesive to create the products, based on blue prints of the design or photos used as.  The completed piece is stuck on a piece of plywood and covered in a glass case.

netti work
Commemorating the Craft

Thanjavur Netti work has Geographical Indicator tagging. GI tagging is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. The application for GI for Netti Work was filed by the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation (Poompuhar) in 2013, but the process of awarding the tag took seven years and came through only in 2020.

Pith work is popular in West Bengal and Orissa too. Bengali brides and grooms wear elaborate head-gear made from pith. Durga Puja pandals have pith idols, backdrops and decorations. Ornaments and dresses for idols are often made of pith. Shola is also used by the puppeteers of Nadia district, West Bengal to make traditional string puppets. 

The use of shola is widespread in Orissa ranges from the headgear worn of Lord Jagannath and his siblings during the Rathayatra, to symbolic boats made for Boita Bandana or the Bali Yatra festivals.

The difference between pith-work of the South and East seems to be that the temple-pieces and idols made in the South are items which are made to last for years and decades, whereas  the decorations and other items made in the East are more ephemeral in nature.

As with traditional crafts and materials, of course there are any number of stories and myths about shola. Here is one: Lord Shiva, as he was making his preparations for his wedding with Parvati, asked Vishwakarma, the divine architect and master-craftsman, to make him a pure white crown and garland for the occasion. But Vishwarma could not deliver. So Shiva plucked a lock of his hair and threw it into a pond. Lo and behold, there sprang up and special type of reed.  But Vishwakarma could not figure out how to fashion the crown and garland from the reed. Shiva then plucked out a hair from his arm and threw it into the pond. This transformed into a young man, who was smart enough and skilled enough to use the pure-white pith of the reed to make the required crown and garland.  Shiva named the youth ‘malakar’ or the garland maker, a name that traditional shola craftsmen of the East are still known by. (Shiva must have been in a benign mood indeed, for Vishwakarma  to have come out of the incident unharmed. I would have expected a pile of ashes!).

Incidentally, the pith helmets beloved to the British Empire has its origins in traditional Filipino sun hats. Though referred to as pith helmets, they may be made of pith, cork, bamboo, rattan etc.  These made their appearance in India in the 1840s, and were extensively used in military campaigns thereafter. They evolved into a distinctive shape which came to be known as the British Colonial pattern.

I have no idea what set off this pithy-wandering in my mind. We did have a Trichy Malai Kottai Temple netti piece in our house when I was growing up, and maybe I saw the story of GI tag for netti work. At any rate, an interesting meander!

–Meena

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