The rhythmic clang of G Gurusamy’s chisel stands out from the whirr of the lathe and the drilling machine’s discordant stomps at Pugazhendhi Grinder Stoneworks in Sanganoor, Coimbatore. Here, grinding stones, mortars and pestles are sculpted from massive rocks. Their specialty, however, are lamps made of stone, for which orders pour in during the Karthigai season. As work goes on at a steady pace, Gurusamy, a worker, is seated under a tree, chiseling away: he plays a crucial role in the scheme of things.
P Maheshwaran, who owns the workshop, makes stone lamps as tall as 12.5 feet. Stone lamps have been around for a long time, but their brass, bronze and clay counterparts are more popular in Tamil Nadu. “My father came across stone lamps during his travels to Kerala 15 years ago,” recalls the 41-year-old, who sources black stone from nearby Namakkal and Karur for his workshop.
“The lamps he saw and aspired to make were carved out of a single stone. He tried the same pattern at home, but the stone cracked every time. After some trial and error, he arrived at the current design,” he adds. The lamps come as a set of stems and plates that can be assembled to form the final structure. One that is five-and-a-half-feet tall, for instance, consists of five plates and five blocks that form the stem.
“They are used in temples, churches, and as décor pieces at hospitals and educational institutions,” Maheswaran points out, adding that he has customers across the State, including in Chennai, Kumbakonam, and Salem, apart from Kerala and Karnataka. Now is his busiest time, and Maheshwaran’s phone is constantly ringing. “Stone lamps last forever,” he says, pointing to the rocks that a drilling machine is cutting down. “It all begins there.”
Once broken down into smaller chunks, they are shaped into discs by hand. This is where Gurusamy’s role comes in. “This step cannot be handled by a machine,” Maheshwaran tells us. Once the circles are ready, the rest of the shaping is done by the lathe, and the lamps are assembled by hand. “It takes eight hours to make a five foot tall lamp,” says Maheswaran, adding that he sells it for ₹4,500.
Gurusamy works with chisels of three sizes. Some 30 years ago, mortars and pestles were carved entirely by hand. “As a result, each piece was unique,” he says, bringing down the hammer on a chisel that chips away a jagged piece of stone into a disc, little by little. Has he ever attempted to sculpt a figurine, apart from lifeless grinding stones? “No,” he smiles. “That requires plenty of patience. One has to carve minute details such as eyes and nose. I will stick to what I’m doing.”