A signature wooden box of Kerala, Nettur Petti was originally made from the northern part and now survives only in some parts of southern Kerala. This box is an amalgamation of many crafting techniques and artistic skills which is a mathematical composition of wooden box making. It symbolizes the architecture of Kerala and beautifully hand-crafted brass fixers on it. Above all, there are also intricately hand painted flora and fauna. Since this box was originated and till now, the box is used only for one usage purpose: for storing jewellery.
Nettur Petti was initially used by mostly the wealthy families and aristocrats to store the valuables and ornaments. At that time, the term ‘Nettur Petti’ was also called ‘Aada Petti’. The box was made from teak and rosewood and usually ornamented with brass. It is said that the box had different compartments and a secret chamber inside. However, due to increasing use of metal cupboards and lockers at present, the box is no longer in much use as before.
Nettur Petti is a wooden box made specially for storing jewellery. Hence popularly called the jewellery box. One of the significant aspects of this craft is that, in the process of making this craftform, the entire method of making it is dependent on a mathematical composition which was followed by the rules of ‘Tachu sastram’, an ancient architecture science followed in the state of Kerala. This method is still practiced and followed while making this craftform.
A paper by H. Fazeli & A. Goodarzi says Ancient sciences of architecture are basically a combination of rules and rituals being applied by the master builders or the local craftsmen. Although these rules were applied in almost every traditional culture which is also evident in their ritual behaviour and folklore literature, there are few written architectural guidelines remained today which Vastu Shastra (Tachu sastram) is one of them. The main concept of Vastu Shastra knowledge of architecture was to guide people to create spaces which harmonize with nature and with the universal forces.
There are different names denoted to this box. Nettur Petti is also called Malabar box and Amada Petti in different parts of Kerala. The shape and construction of the Nettur Petti box is often compared to a traditional Kerala house. While the measurements that were initially considered to make this box, craftsmen still follow the same principles that makes this craft unique in its own way.
The history of the origin of Nettur Petti box might trace back to the days of the Mushiga dynasty also known as ‘Kolathiris’ now called ‘Chirakkal Rajahs’. However, due to lack of proper documentation, it is creating obstacles to understand the exact origin and evolution of this craftform. Etymologically, ‘Nettur Petti’ depicts the origin from Nettur a place situated near Thalassery while Petti means a box so literally the meaning is a box made at Nettur. But, relying on the name may become a controversy as there are few other places titled as ‘Nettur’.
However, there is some historical evidence which suggests that this particular craft originated in the Kolathiri dynasty. The design influences can be traced back in the architectural detailing done at temples of north Kerala and the major influence of mural paintings and the folk ritualistic performance- ‘theyyam’. At present, there are no craftsmen working on or making Nettur Petti in the region of north Kerala. But the craft form survives in few other parts of southern Kerala.
How the craft form of making Nettur Petti travelled to South Kerala, can be traced back to the 14th century historical evidence found. The origin lay in the 14th century adoption from the Kolathiri dynasty, when a celebrated ancestor of the Travancore family king called as ‘Sangamadheera’ placed two princesses as his successors. During that time, Travancore was known as Kupaka kingdom and was not considered strictly Malayali culture. The rulers and people of this kingdom had affinity towards Tamil society as Sangamadheers himself had married a Pandya princess, by winning the proudest victories beyond the eastern frontiers of Kerala. The Kolathiri King, thus is believed to have been loath to send two of his sisters into a Tamil family, and through a clever deception and artful intrigue the king Sangamadheera orchestrated their acquisition.
As a consolation, perhaps it was decided to protect the adoptees of their own, away from the Tamil influences they so abhorred. So, a portion of the Kupaka kingdom with its headquarters placed at Attingal was carved out and a miniature version of Kalahari country was skillfully designed within. Not only was Thirivirattukkavu Bhagavati concentrated here as the principal goddess, but even retainers, soldiers, artisans, craftsmen, slaves and other moral factors were brough together all the way from the homeland of the princesses, rather than being recruited locally.
Such kind of history of Kerala is the mere example to showcase how the authentic Malabar box or now called Nettur Petti travelled from the region of North Kerala to South Kerala.
Motifs and colour schemes used in Nettur Petti are said to be inspired from Kerala mural paintings. For paintings the designs on the box, enamel pigments are used. In order to look the box colourful and attractive, bright colours are used for painting like orange, red, yellow and green. The designs are mostly inspired from nature like flora and fauna. Mostly, there is usage of elephant motifs on the box. It is believed that since ancient days, elephants have an inevitable role in the tradition and culture of Kerala.
There is an interesting process behind painting done on these boxes. It first starts with making the surface of the box fine. After that, a layer of the gum is applied on the box thoroughly and then a good quality canvas is spread on it evenly. Once it is dry and stuck well on the wooden surface, a mixture of chalk powder and gum is applied and then multiple layers are made in this manner. Later, it is kept for the drying process which generally consumes a day to get fully well dry. Once the surface is dried fully enough, bright colours as mentioned earlier-orange, red, green as per the orders required are applied. After the paint is dried, the painted surface of the box is again smoothened with the help of fine sandpaper to create a smooth surface for illustrating flawless designs on it. Illustrating designs on these surfaces takes time, as it is absolutely done free hand. However, it should be noted here that only for illustrating elephant designs, the elephants are drawn on the surface with the help of a stencil. To sketch such types of designs easily, the bristles of the brush are removed and a calligraphic nib is attached to create sharp and fine lines.
Once used as a jewellery box, famous for its decoration with brass embellishments and the lid which are shaped like the roof of a traditional house in Kerala, is currently on the verge of extinction. With the introduction of metal safes, cupboards and lockers the Nettur Petti is slowly falling into disguise and many families are discarding it as junk.
However, recently, a master craftsman from Kerala- Mr. Suresh Kumar has undertaken a task of reviving this craft form. Instead of simply converting and replicating the boxes of yore, this craftsman has given a new look to this box for the present buyers. According to him, few of the customers nowadays insist on maintaining the old look of the box, but there are others who want it to be painted with mural-like work. In 2014, Suresh was commissioned to make a Nettur Petti to carry the relics of Saint Chavara Kuriakose Elias and Saint Euphrasia to Rome for canonisation by Pope Francis at the Vatican. He also makes the box with the glass on the four sides made particularly on special occasions. Currently, Mr. Suresh has an outlet at Kerala Arts and Crafts Village in Vellore near Kovalam, which is led and managed by his brother Mr. VV Ramesh Kumar. Although the lockdown because of Covid-19 was a difficult time for the craftsmen, the government of Kerala gave them a helping hand with establishing innovative schemes for gifting during the popular festival of Kerala: Onam, last year.
The making of Nettur Petti box follows the ancient Kerala mathematical tradition of ‘Tachusastra Vidhi’ followed by a casting process.
The raw materials used for making Nettur Petti are as follows:
–Wood: It is considered as the main raw material and component in making this box. The types of wood used are mostly Rosewood, Aanjili, Jackwood and Mahogany which are locally sourced.
–Brass: Brass sheets are another main component used in making this box. These brass sheets are usually sourced from Mumbai city.
–Fabric: to cover inside area of the box
–Nail: different type of nail to fix the wood and brass ornaments
–Varnish: to give wood shine and life
–Glue: to fix the wood and fabric inside the box
some pieces of wood, wood dust and fabric waste
The tools used for making the Nettur Petti are as follows:
-Uli: Also known as chisel, there are different types of chisels of various sizes. These are used during the process of making wooden boxes and also while metal casting and its finishing.
-Pozhichuli and Cheevuli (Plainer): These are the two tools which are used to make the surface smooth and even.
-Gushimattom: Gushimattom is a handmade tool made of wood, used for marking the measurements on the planks.
-Chuttika: Also known as hammers, there are different types of metal and wooden hammers which are used in the making of this Nettur Petti.
-Measuring Tool: Different types of metallic scales are used. Besides these, different types of wooden saw, filers, metal cutting blade, nails, scissors are also used in this making process.
With the time artisan also use variety of power tools like, Wood Table Saw, Hand grinder, drill machine etc.
Before starting the process of making Nettur Petti, the selection of wood is an extremely important step. There are few criterias for selecting the wood- generally wood having less number of nodes which gives better quality are selected. The types of wood used for making this craft are rosewood, Jack wood, Jungle jack and Mahogany. If there is any decay or bend found on the wood, that wood is not taken for making the Nettur Petti box, as it will affect the finishing and structure of the box. In hardwood like rosewood, the variety of colours, textures and grain patterns some truly interesting patterns on the final product box. The rich earthy colours, appearance, durability and ease of construction makes the wood selected as unavoidable part of the entire crafting process of Nettur Petti. The type of wood selected determines the strength and beauty of the finished product. Once the wood is selected, these are cut into planks.
The making process of Nettur Petti begins with first deciding the measurement as per the ‘Tachusastra Vidhi’. These measurements are marked on the plank according to the regulations and rules of Tachusastram. The lower part of the petti includes 7 pieces where the upper part consists of 4 pieces. The cutting is then done in both ways, depending on the orders-manually and with the help of a machine. The surface of the planks is even out by scraping the uneven parts with the use of cheevuli (plainer). Once the planks are even out, these are then cut into individual pieces in required shapes mostly in this step- making of lower box and top lid takes place. It is said that making the top portion of the box is a complicated process as it has to be joined by four pieces of wood simultaneously. Once this process is done, a biased finishing is done on the edges of these pieces. The top of the Nettur Petti box is constructed in the shape of the traditional Kerala house architecture roof. The angles are made with the help of the tool, – ‘gushimattom’ while the biased finishing edges are done with the help of ‘cheevuli’. Later, with the help of ‘pozhichuli’, the groves are made so the top portion can accurately sit with the lower part of the box that gives an intact locking system to the box.
Once the top portion of the box is done, the making of the bottom portion of the box starts. The making of the bottom portion follows the same rules and techniques for making the top portion of the box. Bottom portion of the box has two utility areas. In earlier times, it was said that the Nettur Petti was used majorly as a jewellery box. Hence, there are utility areas provided inside so that the small jewellery pieces like earrings and rings can be kept inside it.
Once the box is made, the method of casting process is followed. The casting process followed for casting Nettur Petti is a die-casting method due to repeated use of motifs and patterns. The motifs of brass fittings are said to be inspired from the ancient architecture of North Kerala. The process starts from the making of die which is casted in iron and the artisan is having a set of dies which is approximately around 50-60 years old. There are sets of dies decided according to the size of the boxes. Once the size of the design is decided accordingly the mooshari selects the die and then it starts with the process of melting brass in a vessel called ‘Kurichipul or musha’. Once the casting is done, the casted artifacts are then detached from the die once it is cool enough to handle. After that, the artifacts are kept in water for sometime later they are kept outside. They are then polished in a buffing machine as well as the sides are filled by using a tool filer. Earlier, different types of sand papers were used for buffing. However, nowadays, another method is used for making brass motifs, i.e cutting the brass sheets. The main reason for using this method being the lack of skilled metal casting labourers. The parts of the brass casted pieces have different types of names given. For instance, ‘Moolakkettu’ is the corner piece used for supporting the side corners. ‘Thavala Kettu’ is the name given for supporting the base, while ‘Thangu Kettu’, for supporting the sides of the box. Pulikal literally means tiger legs, but here the name is used as a base support. And lastly, the title, ‘Pidi’ given for the handle which is fixed on the top of the roof.
List of craftsmen.
Anonymous, “Ernakulam History”, Ernakulamonline.com website.