Carrying the Craft

Published on 28 January 2018

Credit: Pamela Ho

During Thaipusam, devotees can recognise a kavadi made by Moti Lal Parsad because of its style and workmanship.

By Pamela Ho

He sits at his humble workspace, reading glasses perched on his nose as he meticulously cuts away pieces of aluminium with his old hand-saw. It’s painstaking work, but he has been doing this for over 30 years; and for kavadi maker Moti Lal Parsad, this is his passion.

“I was a technical student in secondary school, so I knew how to work with metals,” says Lal Parsad, who started making his own kavadi at age 15. “Nobody teaches you, nobody wants to share their trade secrets, so you have to observe and learn by trial and error.”

The 47-year-old father of three is Hindu and a devotee of Lord Murugan, for whom the kavadi is carried during Thaipusam. “We carry the kavadi to fulfil a vow, when our prayers at the temple have been answered,” he explains, adding that he himself has been carrying the kavadi since he was 13. He started with milk pots and paal kavadis (no spikes), before progressing to the spike kavadi.

As a kavadi maker, Lal Parsad customises everything: from the frame (made of aluminium, stainless steel, brass and copper, and weighing 40kg or more) to the designs and decorations. “The whole kavadi looks like a mountain and a temple. It can have two to four tiers but Lord Murugan is always on top; and there’s always peacock feathers because his ‘vehicle’ is the peacock.”

Every year, he gets about five to six orders, and takes about three months to complete one as the designs are all hand-drawn and hand-cut according to customers’ requests. He also sends the plates to India for engraving. A customised Lal kavadi costs between $3,000 and $10,000.

“A well-constructed kavadi can last 10 to 20 years,” he explains, adding that customers often start off with one within their budget, then upgrade in subsequent years. But costs have been steadily increasing, in both Singapore and India. “Peacock feathers used to cost 10 cents each, now it’s a dollar; and a kavadi needs about 1,000 feathers.”

The number of kavadi carriers during Thaipusam is also declining. While there used to be thousands, these days, only three to four hundred carry the spike kavadi. “You can’t make a living doing this full-time in Singapore,” he says. “I’m driving with Uber to supplement my income.”

He reckons there are fewer than 10 experienced kavadi makers left in Singapore. “People find out about me by word of mouth,” he says, adding that he has tried teaching youngsters but feels they lack the patience and perseverance. “It’s tedious, even sharpening the spikes, your hand will be full of blisters! So you have to be prepared to work hard.”

But passion keeps him going. “I enjoy the work, the drawing and coming up with something new each time; and I feel satisfied seeing my work on other people’s kavadi. Now, people can tell it’s a Lal kavadi when they see one.”

Credit: Pamela Ho
Credit: Moti Lal Parsad
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