Hewn logs lie scattered, sapped of life. A craftsperson comes and transforms them into animated figures, infusing life into the dead wood. Meet R. Jeeva (39), a past master at carving images of personalities out of wood. At Jeeva Kalai Koodam which he founded in 2000, wooden masterpieces, including poet Bharati, Ambedkar, Vivekanada, Mother Teresa, Paramacharyar, film actors Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Surya and Vijay, are displayed artistically.
As a child growing up in Sithamalli in Tiruvarur district, Jeeva would make small articles out of coconut shells. His hope of becoming a scientist was dashed by his family’s financial situation. After finishing his 10th standard, he was forced to look for some odd jobs in small companies. Thus began his chequered career.
A small plastic products company that he started turned a damp squib. He then worked as a tailor in an export company.
Jeeva says: “One day I was stitching a material when I stumbled upon a photo of an actress in a paper. I felt inspired and started to sketch her the cloth using a piece of chalk. On seeing it, the owner sent me to learn textile designing. I finished the course in 15 days and started getting orders to print designs on garments for export.”
After a seven-year stint at the job, he moved to Coimbatore where he made small items such as clips, flower vases, gift articles out of coconut shells.
“I started displaying my products outside a reputable college. For three days, I got no response. Then, a photo studio provided me space to display my products and sale started to pick up. Within a month, I sold nearly Rs. 7,000 worth of products. I also approached the Lions Club for putting up stalls at their exhibitions. Though rejected I kept calling the chairman regularly, who finally agreed to my stall proposal,” he says.
Narrating his past in a broken chain, he talks about the dark days in his life: “Bogged down by my financial state, I was once about to commit suicide. At the moment, I saw a photo of Mother Teresa and her face magically altered my feeling. I started drawing her in wood and the next morning, I got an order for a few lakhs.”
When the government announced an exhibition in Chennai, no craftsman could be found from Tiruvarur district. Getting the wind of the news he planned to go to Chennai. But, financial problems dogged him. “My friends arranged money to buy tickets,” he says. A roaring business at the exhibition showed that he was not only an able artisan, but also a skilled salesman.
A profit of Rs. 10,000 that he made at the Chennai exhibition sparked in Jeeva the decision to stay in the metropolis. His wooden portraits of Latha Rajinikanth so amused her that she offered to sell his wooden wonders in her shop. Slowly, orders started pouring in from Y.G. Mahendran, Sivaji’s family and other film artists.“I run the show alone and have no employees in my company. My wife helps me a lot. I am thinking of training at least five handicapped persons for free. But, I have not identified such persons who can learn this art,” Jeeva says. His wooden cravings have also reached Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, the U.S., the U.K., Denmark, among others. A Central government craftsman card-holder, Jeeva also makes wall hangings, flower vases and pen stands out of wood.
With a note of pride, he says, “I have taken part in almost all exhibitions across the country.” The artistically endowed Jeeva’s success formula has perseverance.