Meet Wayanad’s coconut man and his 1,000 coconut sculptures


Puzhamudi Balan Nair
Amidst the greenery of Kerala's Wayanad district, surrounded by medicinal plants, residing in an old house that is connected by an almost un-motorable road lives an old, frail man. Bespectacled, and almost always dressed in white, Puzhamudi Balan Nair can easily be shrugged off as just another resident of the beautiful place. But, behind that docile veneer lies a sharp and creative mind that hides many a talent. Bala mama, as he is fondly called, is probably the only Indian who has more than 1,000 sculptures made of coconuts to his name. He has created small animals, birds, musical instruments, lamps, and even a working watch out of just coconut shells! 

Started making sculptures since 1980s
His love for coconut art can be traced back to the 1980s; coinciding with a time when television programmes were just starting to make an appearance in many remote districts of Kerala. “In Kerala, the first programme started streaming from Ernakulam. Soon, Malayalees visiting from the Gulf started getting television sets for their families. It was the new fad,” says Bala mama.  

“My son decided to do a Radio and Television mechanism course. After the course, he insisted on getting a television and have antennae placed on top of our home so that we could tune into programmes being broadcasted from Ernakulam. The antennas of the 80s looked different from the dish antennas of today. They looked like fish bones, and we had to place it just right to catch the signal,” he continues.

One day, Bala mama came across a television programme that showed a Namboothiri (a priestly caste in Kerala) making a small sculpture out of coconut shells. “I was absolutely fascinated by it! I thought if he could do it so can I. And, from the very next day, I started experimenting,” he adds. 

Bala mama and his axo blade 
The first sculpture that Bala mama made out of coconuts was that of a jug. And, it took him five coconut shells to create it! “In terms of equipment, I had no issues. I had jeeps, tractors and power tills for agricultural purposes, and those need constant maintenance. I had an Axo blade, the most important tool required. But, the problem lay with finding the right kind of coconut,” he says. 

Shape matters:

Bala mama is inspired by the most mundane of things
Any coconut won’t do, he points out. The shape of the coconut has to be perfect for the decided figurine.“When I made the jug, I needed different shapes of coconuts; for the body, the base and even the handle!  It is not an easy process. But when the jug slowly started taking the desired shape, I felt that it was undoubtedly one of the most gratifying things I have ever done! ” he says.   

Inspired by the mundane:

Every sculpture requires a special kind of coconut  
Bala mama gets inspired by the most mundane of things; a spider, a rat, a lamp. Everyday items that are often overlooked by others, catches Ballamama’s keen eyes. He first draws the object he is going to make on a piece of paper, and then tries to find the perfectly shaped coconut to bring the drawing to life.    
However, the most interesting aspect of Bala mama’s work is not the creations, but the machine he has fashioned to make these sculptures; which again unsurprisingly is made of coconuts!

Bala mama created his own small equipment to make the sculptures
“When I started, I could not find a machine that would allow me to cut the coconuts the way I desired. Other than the Axo blade, I had nothing else, and nothing was available in the market. Since I was the one making the tiny sculptures I decided to make the equipment for it too,” he adds.

"The machine makes it easy for me to measure the coconut and helps me cut it in a precise manner. A single mistake and all the hard work goes for a toss,” says Bala mama who is also a very talented artist.

The entire process is time-consuming, sometimes running into weeks 
Making a coconut sculpture can be a time-consuming process based on the kind of shape that is chosen. Sometimes, it may take weeks.  One of Bala mama's most prized possessions and the one that took the most amount of time was a flute that he made completely out of coconuts. It took him six coconuts to make the flute, and each hole of the flute had to be meticulously designed. "All the coconuts needed to have the same volume, surface, type, structure, or the flute would have been uneven. It was a hard task," he explains. 

Not for Sale:



He managed to make a fully functional watch out of coconuts
Bala mama has not sold a single creation of his and doesn't intend to do so either. “You may take it for free, but I won't sell them. I don’t do this for commercial purposes. I do it because it satisfies my creative urges, and I love to see a beautiful creation emerge out of something that is usually discarded after use,” he said. 

The septuagenarian who received the Kerala State Award for his work in 1981, works on his craft on Sundays and other holidays. "I used to teach the same to the adivasi kids in a school nearby. It was fun, they enjoyed it a lot,” he says.
Bala Mama is sure that his grandaughter will continue his legacy
Ask him who will continue his legacy and he says with a hint of pride in his voice, “My granddaughter. I teach her and she has taken to the art form. I am sure she will do much better than me.”  

-Gayatri Nair 
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