A collaborative article on a South-Indian master craftsman, published in The Sivakasi Times, a local Indian magazine, in August 2008.
One of the typical Indian handicrafts is the korai grass mat. Meet Peer Mohammed, who is not just any mat maker, but the most famous one in India. He has already sold his mats to the English Royal House! Read more to find out more about the man behind the name
Over 50 years ago, Peer Mohammed got what may have been the biggest order of his life. In 1953, the Royal Insurance Company ordered one of his mats for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This extraordinary event singled him out as one of India’s outstanding craftsmen and made his hometown of Pattamadai irrevocably famous for its mats.
Peer Mohammed may be 79 years old, but he was still full of energy as he showed us around his workshop. He told us, with a mischievous smile, that he knew some useful sentences in English. “I speak little English”, he said, “but I can say… Madam! Look at these beautiful mats, Madam! Made from the finest grass, Madam! Known all over the world! Come see, come see, Madam! Look at the beautiful patterns, Madam!”
Despite his limited English, he was able to explain the process of mat production with a perfectly memorised speech. He recited it quickly, emphasising the drying time of the korai grass used in the mats. Once plucked from the Tambirabarani River in Tirunelveli, the grass has to be exposed to the sun for 40 days “until it gets a golden hue!” It is then weighed down by stones at the bottom of the river and left to soak. It is turned twice a day (once in the morning and once in the evening), so that both sides get equal exposure to light. The pieces of dried grass that are thinner, and therefore might be washed away by the river, are taken to a tub of river water that he has at home, where the same process is maintained (i.e. weighing the grass down with stones and turning the grass twice a day). After seven days, when the grass becomes a bit rotten, he uses his knife to scrape off the rotten bits, which also takes off the unwanted shiny side of the grass. Then it is cut into six or seven parts and dyed.
Sitting on the floor of his shop in a kurta, looking through past articles written about his trade, Mohammed expressed his love for his work with a toothless grin. He stated proudly that he produces the “ghee of mat making.” In 1950, the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was so impressed with the quality of his mats that he donated the property that Peer Mohammed still uses as a workshop.
Peer Mohammed has been working as a mat maker since he was eight years old, when he helped to cut the grass. He started weaving at age 20, and quickly became famous for his wedding mats, on which the names of the spouses and the date of the wedding are spelled out. He was only 24 when he got the order for Queen Elizabeth’s mat, and has since offered mats to various personalities such as Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, and Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. They are also bought by members of the Indian embassy, who send these mats as presents to various world leaders –both as a sign of friendship and an expression of Indian culture.
The importance of individual craftsmanship is embedded in the identity of India. It was, after all, the famous charka spinning wheel that Gandhi distributed amongst the poorest members of Indian society that drove the Indian movement for independence forward. Therefore, the government is keen to encourage the production of handicrafts. The older the craft, the better, for it portrays the culture of India with greater depth. The skill of mat making is centuries old and therefore Peer Mohammed finds himself invited to at least four government-organised exhibitions per year, although he attends only one. This is because he is able to successfully sell all of his products in one exhibition (plus those that he has taken from other mat weavers, who ask him to sell their items at the exhibition for them).
One could say that mat making is in Peer Mohammed’s blood. According to him, his family started weaving mats three to four hundred years ago. Mohammed works with his five daughters, and firmly believes in making a living within one’s own household, although his son has chosen to work in real estate. Each of his daughters has families of their own, and all of them are sustained by the mat making business. He particularly emphasised the importance of family. He told us that when his wife died, roughly 30 years ago, he chose not to remarry in order to focus his time and attention solely on his children.
However, Peer Mohammed’s life is not simply confined to the realm of mat making. He is also an imam [the term for an officiating priest of a mosque] in Pattamadai’s prominent Lebbai Muslim community. He said he has become increasingly religious over time. “When the blood is old, one is more devoted to God”, he declared, smiling, before adding that he considered his craftsmanship a gift from God. “Thanks to Allah”, he further proclaimed, “I am very healthy. I don’t even need glasses!”
He told us he had faith that traditional mat making will go on long after he’s gone, despite the rapid modernization of India. He expressed the belief that subsequent generations who didn’t go on to higher education would continue the trade forever. In addition to this, he gave a more sophisticated explanation for the continued success of his business in relation to global economy (which was quite unexpected!). He asserted that the value of the rupee against the dollar will eventually increase. Because of this, the earnings of his grandchildren who have gone abroad to make their living will decrease in value. Therefore, it would eventually become equally profitable to return to India and continue the mat business.
With the combined charm of Mohammed, the skill of his daughters, the individual beauty of each product and the strength of the mat making tradition, it seems likely that his prediction will be proved correct, and these mats will continue to be seen throughout India and across the world for many years to come.