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Aura of Athangudi tiles

Last week we carried details of a typical Chettinad home makeover. We thought it would be appropriate to follow it up with details on Athangudi tiles that most Chettinad floors are covered with. A look at the signature South Tamil Nadu homes by RANJANI GOVIND

— PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

GIVE ME RED: Sandhya Subbaramaiah’s house has Athangudi tiles, known for their simple yet magnificent looks. They are available in geometrical and floral designs and are cost-friendly too.

More than the responsibility of building a house, selecting materials from a teasing variety seems to be a challenge, given the variety that one is exposed to. A coordinated décor for any room begins with laying the right kind of floor, setting pace for the rest of the embellishments to evolve naturally. So, the aesthetic test for a dwelling literally takes off from the ground.

Take for instance Sandhya Subbaramaiah’s house in Dollars Colony, J.P. Nagar, where the sprawling ethnicity is further augmented by her choice of Athangudi floor tiles from Chettinad, that fall perfectly in place with the ‘interior rhythm’ of her earthy dwelling. Dextrous use of stone for walls make a statement and the wooden steps for the stairs spell a grandeur with natural grains. A skylight in the near-centre works as an open connect for the kitchen, drawing and dining rooms, bringing natural rays in abundance, while her roof overhangs at the entrance is a sample of her simple sit-out taste. If all these virtues of going green had to be boxed within for gaining a character to step on, it was her decision to have Athangudi tiles that’s paid her a conscience reward.

Says Sandhya, an artist, dealing with artefacts-studio-clay pottery, “I wanted to encourage a hand-made product that was a part of the revivalist moment, as it was a renaissance for the tiles after going into oblivion for decades. Generally I feel assembly-made and mass produced items are devoid of character, and even with a poor choice of 10-12 colours in Athangudi tiles, I got something close to red-oxide and yet superior. It’s the sheen and not the gloss in them that appeals.”

The land of Chettiars

Chettinad, the land of wealthy Chettiars, in the South of Tamil Nadu, is known for its art, architecture and food connoisseurs. It has nurtured, preserved and exported its local craft and culinary skills to the world. Manufacturing exclusive colourful tile designs was a thriving industry then in Athangudi.

The few who sell the tiles in Bangalore are dealers who pick them up from Karaikudi and Chettinad. PropertyPlus spoke to some authentic, long-standing boutique-owners in Chennai (dealing with Chettinad antiques) who source the tile from artisans involved in the trade.

S. Gomathy of Kipling & Co. Arts (Ph: 24465068 / 69 / 71; kipling@vsnl.com) recalled how the tiles were first attempted in Chettinad. “Originally tiles from Germany, England and Italy made their way into affluent homes, but when the tiles aged with wear and tear, fixing them again was cumbersome. That was when the enterprising people of the area learnt the art of tile-making and having a trademark of their own in Athangudi.”

The tiles are not ceramic. Cement, baby jelly and sand with synthetic oxides make up the composition. They are cast from the locally available clay that is burnt and then glazed. Athangudi tiles have a play of base colours with conventional flora and line-drawing designs that set them apart from the modern versions in the market.

“Laying it on the cement floor is a special technique,” adds Gomathy, a native of Chettinad, “and only masons trained in the art can wield their deft hands to get the level right, as the tile is three-fourth inch thick and is very heavy, with no modern frills at the edges to camouflage the imperfections of laying.”

Machine polish is not needed for these tiles. They can be cleaned with husk initially, later a daily mop with few drops of coconut oil is said to keep the sheen intact. “It is supposed to age beautifully, and the more you walk on it, the more sheen it gains,” agrees the clay artist Sandhya, hailing the economy involved in the cost too (Rs.35-60 per sq. ft.).

What about the fissures that develops with time? “Believe me, it adds a texture and character. But if the curing that is done for 21 days is perfect, then the fissures may be minimal,” says Sandhya who sourced the tiles from Iyyappan of Shivam Shakthi, who supplies all over the country (Ph: 094483 88117).

Earthy tones

Sivakami Subbiah of The Chettinad Shop in Chennai (Ph: 24618007 or 24610975) says, “The designs and the colour could be custom made. The tiles are generally used only for flooring. Dark earthy hues and black and white assemblage for borders are the Chettinad-tile specialities. The drawing room and courtyard are perfect places where the tile could be used and the annapakshi motif can put any silk carpet to shame in its visual appeal.”

Its greatness, however, lies in the fact that there are no efforts to contemporise the makeover or the design; in fact the tile itself is a revival of some facets of the bygone opulent tastes. The Chettiars migrated to Burma (now Myanmar) and other countries and brought back lacquer ware, enamel and tile designs. This inspired those at home to recognise the artistry and propagate it as commerce.

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