It’s hard to make sense of the sight of a Nagamese Morung replica on a warm balmy Fort Kochi afternoon. I remember the wide-eyed moment when I first saw this large wooden erstwhile dormitory in Mopongchuket village in the North Eastern state a few years ago. This instance is not too different, but for a perplexing reason. Why would a massive weathered relic from Nagaland be of any interest to a Malayali?
It appears, however, that this is not the only thing that caught the attention of brothers Sunny and Johny of Crafters Antiques Shop. They also managed to transport towering wooden dolls and other tribal artefacts. And that was just from Nagaland. There is not one corner of the country or one part of the world that Fort Kochi’s most popular antique sellers have not contemplated sourcing from. Each story of procuring these exquisite pieces of art slowly lures me into the dusty, jam-packed store-cum-workshop of Crafters, each corner brimming with a fascinating tale.
Johny thwarts my attempt to scrape for any fragments of intriguing anecdotes about how the shop was established. Was he always interested in antiques? Was this a family business for years? Did the brothers inherit any personal pieces? What is his favourite piece in this beehive-like shop? After all, Crafters celebrates its silver jubilee this year! A somewhat diffident Johny steers me towards the collection instead. Thoran lamps, Bastar figures, cast iron furniture, Chinese ginger jars, restored wooden cabinets and beady little eyes of cow head masks peer at me from congested racks and walls. Just the ambience that an antique shop demands!
As we haltingly make our way through the crammed space, the story of Crafters starts coming together. The Jew town in Mattancherry, where the shop is located, was (and still is) a thriving spices market. In fact, a heavy aroma still hangs in the air in this Siamese twin town of Fort Kochi. Even as the trucks line up on the narrow Mattancherry road to load sacks of turmeric and pepper, they do little to mask the damp ochre-coloured walls of warehouses and drying yards behind them. Johny’s family too once traded these spices, till it became imperative to find newer business avenues. After a few years of looking for the right exit, the family turned, in 1989, to making a new livelihood from antiques. By then, Mr. Godwin of Indus Arts and Curios had already set up shop next to the Synagogue. A handful of other dealers had also traversed the antiques path. Taking a leaf from these first antique dealers, brothers Johny and Sunny Malayil started sourcing archaic artefacts from Kerala and around to fill up the shop next to the backwaters of Mattancherry.
As we step out into the backyard of Crafters, a passing ship nudges gentle waves to collide with the shop’s garden wall. Johny continues to share the trajectory of the business, talking humbly about his accomplishments of sourcing exquisite pieces of art from around India. Surely, getting owners to part with Himachali storage boxes or elegant Tanjore paintings couldn’t have been easy. At first, the brothers themselves travelled through the year, but now the business has shaped up well enough to have an efficient linkage with distributors and collectors. In fact, Crafters is spread over five more outlets in the town, all less than 500 metres from one another.
Of these, the one with the largest ‘uruli’ gets the most footfalls. An uruli is a traditional cooking vessel in Kerala, but the Malayalis gave it a different avatar. This one costs Rs 7 lakh and claims to be the world’s largest. It is 12 feet in diameter and weighs 3,184kg. Thirty craftsmen from a small village called Mannar hunched over a large metal block for a year to create this masterpiece; 160 more artisans joined them for the final touches. The result was a glorious piece of artistry that wooed even Prince Charles and Camilla Parker to come and have a peek at it.
While minimalism may be the coveted design language these days, Johny spills the secret on how no one can resist an old wooden mask or a copper figurine, once they enter the shop. After all, the rough edges or a missing hand of a statue transports you to an imaginative story. That’s why even the reclaimed wooden boxes and cabinets have many takers. While individuals singularly focus on unique small pieces, hotel chains have their eyes on furniture and paintings. While discussing preferences, a small secret leaks out in the heat of the moment; Johny finally reveals that he would never want to see his favourite carved door go out of the shop!
VI/141, Jew Town, Fort Kochi; crafters.in; 0484-2223345, 2223346; open Mon-Sat: 9am–6pm, Sun: 10am–6pm.