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A specialist in crafting traditional mango-shaped padlocks, Mohan can produce up to four pieces per day, depending on the size and specifications. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Dindigul, Tamil Nadu: Dindigul is an unassuming small town of Tamil Nadu in southern India. If not for a unique craft tradition, it would hardly have registered in anyone’s imagination.

With teeming market places, loud street vendors and haggling customers, the town may look like a regular settlement in India, but there is something about this place that makes it stand out.

The town’s claim to fame is not the rock fort that dominates its horizon from all sides, but the rock-like locks that have been part of Dindigul’s cultural heritage.

For centuries, the entire district of Dindigul has been synonymous with lock-making, handcrafted exquisitely by highly experienced craftsmen with skills passed on generations after generations.

Through their sheer skill and artistry, the people of Dindigul have ensured security of many palaces, temples and treasures for several centuries, but the unique craft that they have inherited from the forefathers now seems to have a very insecure future.

With the advent of globalisation, the handmade locks are losing patronage, which means consumers are preferring low quality, cheaper goods over these tough and highly durable products. As a result, only a few craftsmen are hold-ing on to their ancestral profession.

Several towns and villages in India have the traditions of metal work but the metal craft of Dindigul is so distinct that it has earned a geographical indication (GI) tag, which means no other crafts people or tradition can appropri-ate of Dindigul’s brand name.

However, according to the artisans, the GI tag hasn’t translated into any discernible change in the fortune for the craft community, but that hasn’t stopped these sturdy workers from pursuing their passion unfazed.

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A typical Dindigul padlock is made of eight parts, but that changes if the lock requires special security features. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

The village of Nallampatti, just outside Dindigul, once had dozens of traditional lock manufacturing units attached to small houses, the village now has only a handful of locksmiths.

“What we lack in number, we make up in vigour. This, anyway, is a high energy job. Apart from dexterity and pre-cision, this job requires high levels of strength and energy. So, this is not for the faint-hearted. Those who are not made of tough metal cannot hold on to this, the economic situation doesn’t make this job easy, so naturally, some people quit,” said the 57-year-old Mohan.

A specialist in crafting traditional mango-shaped padlocks, Mohan can produce up to four pieces per day, depend-ing on the size and specifications.

Bigger the size, longer the duration, with each part requiring great precision, finesse and attention to details.

A typical Dindigul padlock is made of eight parts, but that changes if the lock requires additional features, such as a master key security system, a double-keyhole, a two-key locking system or an anti-theft lock that flashes a sharp blade whenever a wrong key is inserted in the keyhole.

“Our lock-making tradition is not just about forging the metal and assembling the parts. This is a specialised science, with locks having multiple security features and can be customised according to any specification. This science has evolved over the last 400 years and if we lose this tradition, we will not just lose a craft but hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge,” added Mohan, who acquired his knowledge from his father and has mastered it over the last 42 years.

In the adjacent neighbourhood of Nagal Nagar, which is known for producing a variety of door locks, only around half a dozen manufacturing units operate now.

Scraping, chiselling and mending the metal, Velayidam and his partner Armugam have been making brass and chromium door locks for 27 years.

Taking over from his father and grandfather, it is the only craft Velayidam knows. And he knows it well, creating each piece of lock with the diligence and focus of an artist.

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Hand-crafting each part requires great precision, finesse and attention to detail. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Depending on the size and features, Velayidam takes at least half a day to create one piece of his artwork, with bigger pieces taking several days to complete.

But, it is not just the size and shape that make Dindigul locks special, it is the exceptional craftsmanship that has given them a unique lustre and an enduring reputation.

“Our work consumes all our energy. I enjoy doing this, crafting these pieces of art out of raw metal. If you don’t enjoy this then you can’t pursue this for long and even if you do it you won’t care for the quality. For me quality is the key to all the reputation our forefathers have acquired,” said Velayidam, who has been making locks for 30 years.

The 47-year-old father of two daughters runs his own small ramshackle manufacturing unit in partnership with his childhood friend Armugam, eking out a simple living through their ancestral craft.

“We strive hard to keep up the name of our ancestors, but what do we gain for all this hard work? Not more than Rs500 per day. There is no value for real skills these days. It’s hard, but we are surviving somehow,” added Ve-layidam.

Masters as they are in their craft, Mohan, Velayidam and many others might be the last in their families to manu-facture locks, as their children have walked away from their ancestral trade, adopting more lucrative professions.

However, not all lock-making families are staring at closed doors. Some of them, like the family of VNK Krishna-murthi have adopted modern methods, adapting to changing realities of the world.

Krishnamurthi’s son, 38-year-old Challapandi is the fifth generation to continue his family’s lock-making tradition.

Interestingly, the young man has injected the much needed energy in the ailing industry of Dindigul, mixing the tra-ditions with modern technology.

“Our family has been in this business for more than 200 years. I have been making locks for 22 years now. We were using the traditional handmade methods until recently, but there are limitations to it, so we introduced machines and have managed to increase the production, but our profits are being eaten up by high prices of raw materials and the middlemen,” said Challapandi.

Like Challpandi’s enterprise, many industrialised government and private lock-making factories now operate in Dindigul. But, can partial automation or use of technology be the key to revival of this ancient trade?

Will industrialisation help unlock the fortunes of these struggling craftsmen?

Shafaat Shahbandari is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media platform that celebrates the diversity of India