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John Baby: The Maestro Transforming Palm Fronds into Playthings

In the lush and vibrant landscapes of Kerala, a unique artistry emerges through the expert hands of John Baby, a local artist, and sculptor. Amidst the chants of children and the ubiquitous presence of coconut palms, Baby breathes life into the ordinary fronds of these palm leaves. With a deft twist here, a precise snip there, and employing the sturdy ribs of coconut trees for support, what was once a mere leaf becomes an assortment of playful creations: birds, fish, snakes, trumpets, balls, caps, and more.

The venue for this transformation is Thalir, a workshop orchestrated by the NGO Thanal in Thiruvananthapuram. Here, eager children aged between seven and fourteen gather to learn from the pony-tailed master himself. Baby guides them with patience and skill, demonstrating the art of braiding and folding the palm leaves and their rib into toys and other delightful objects.

In spite of the searing heat, the atmosphere is charged with enthusiasm as the youthful attendees proudly exhibit their handmade wonders. They’ve fashioned fish that seem to swim in the air and birds poised as if to take flight. Little Ardra AR, a seven-year-old participant, beams as she shows off her crafted green bird, while her peer, Aydin Mohammed, displays a fish dangling at the end of a makeshift fishing line. C Jayakumar, Executive Director of Thanal, partakes in the merriment, blowing a trumpet fashioned by John while he navigates the intricacies of creating his own.

John reflects on his journey with a sense of fulfillment, valuing the awakening of a mere quintet of children’s interest in their natural environment over dependence on commercially produced playthings. His own childhood in Haripad, Alappuzha district, was dotted with such creations — the agricultural workers in his paddy fields schooled him in this craft, little knowing they were nurturing a guardian of a rapidly vanishing art form.

Fatherhood amplified John’s connection to palm leaf art as he constructed these toys for his son Minon and daughter Minto. His son’s persistent encouragement led to an array of even more ingenious palm leaf toys. John reminisces about the integration of coconut palms in Kerala’s lifestyle — thatched roofs, celebratory weaves, and ritualistic uses — a symbiosis now threatened by the prevalence of concrete constructs that sever ties with traditional roots.

To bolster his knowledge of indigenous decoration methods deploying golden-yellow tender coconut fronds, Baby spent time with practitioners of regional art forms such as Thullal, Theyyam, and Padayani. It distresses him to see these artistic traditions wane, especially when he witnessed a Thullal artist resort to plastic in lieu of traditional kuruthola decor.

Despite shifts in children’s play from homemade toys to digital gadgets, John persists in sharing his craft with the younger generation, aiming to preserve this slice of cultural heritage. Engaged recently by the Lalitakala Akademi, he tutored 20 artisans in the creation of screwpine leaf articles. He has also been active teaching these skills at the Kerala State Institute of Design.

John notes the transient nature of coconut palm leaves, which dry out and degrade swiftly, contrasting this with the durability of screwpine leaves, which he quotes as a reason for his pivot to work with them. Among his creations are delicate dragonflies and lifelike figures of animals and insects. He urges the government to recognize these crafts as valuable and to promote them as souvenirs, offering an alternative to the costly handicrafts saturating tourist markets.

Beyond the artistry and cultural significance, Baby highlights the developmental benefits for children: improved concentration, stoked imagination, and fostered eye-hand coordination. And patience, he insists, is a virtue imparted through this craft.

As we converse, his fingers never still, weaving a narrative as tangible as the palm leaves he manipulates. Suddenly, with a flourish, he presents to me a woven green cap — his creation over the course of our conversation. Donning this new hat, a shield against the midday sun, I depart, leaving behind a new generation entranced and busy crafting under John Baby’s guidance, their hands shaping more than just toys — they’re shaping tradition.