The gnarled souvenirs

Crafty Venture: While coffee berries make up for the traditional beverage, their stems are used to make unconventional furniture.

The gnarled souvenirs

Bearers of the much sought-after red berries, the coffee shrubs — twisted and strong — withstand the test of time with grace and robustness. They live a purposeful life and after death, turn into beautiful relics adorning the rustic interiors of houses. Kodagu, a coffee haven, is home to such relics and, coffee shrubs here live and die a gainful life.

No one part of the coffee shrub is considered to be a waste. While coffee berries make up for the traditional beverage, their stems make up for the unconventional furniture such as walking sticks, teapoys, dining tables, corner stands and cloth stand. Coffee stems are trimmed to fabricate furniture that are both ornamental and functional. The coffee furniture business is booming in Sakleshpur. Surendra Rai, a coffee furniture crafter, has a functional workshop in Anemahal on Sakleshpur highway. Being in the business for 22 years now, he says, “While our business hugely depends on the tourist inflow, we manage to earn quite a bit from wholesale marketing.” The Sakleshpur craftsmen, being in the coffee crafting business for the longest time, are known for their versatility, which makes them the majority sellers of these furniture to wholesale buyers in Mangaluru, Dharmasthala, Kateel, Kolluru and Bengaluru.

The process
However, Kodagu does not take a back seat in this crafty venture. Subramani, a versatile carpenter in Madikeri, has been crafting furniture for 28 years now. He holds a special interest in crafting the unconventional coffee stems and explains that the art requires invariable effort. He adds that the crafting of furniture from uprooted coffee stem is a painstaking and time-consuming art, yet an individualistic and a traditional one. “While furniture from the other kinds of wood can be made within a week or so, arty crafts from coffee take a longer period — a couple of months,” he says.

The uprooted coffee shrubs need to be soaked in water for a week or two, depending on the thickness of the stem. The outer skin of the soaked stem is then peeled out. The stems are then dried for a day or two and a coat of natural polish is applied, followed by a coat of wood sealer that is daubed on its rough surface. “Each coat applied needs to dry out completely and hence, every coat of sealer or polish should be kept untouched for 24 hours,” Subramani explains. He adds that the coating of polish is done depending on the requirement and liking of the customer.

While Subramani has been designing coffee stems for nearly 30 years, Bollu Kushalappa, a full-time estate supervisor in Bollumadu Estate of South Kodagu, started crafting these stems as a hobby two years back.

Supervising an 80-acre estate, he was left with a lot of uprooted stems that were mostly used as firewood. However, he came across the better utilisation of coffee stems and started crafting them meticulously. He explains, “Once you learn the art of crafting these strong stems, you can afford to improvise on them.

Also, since the coffee stems are shaped beautifully, it is creativity in crafting these stems that is important and there are no hard and fast rules in shaping these wood pieces.” He crafts teapoys, flower stands, corner stands, television stands, dining tables and many other utility furniture that are priced between Rs 2,000 and Rs 10,000. “Not a peck of fungus or termite can haunt the furniture made from robusta coffee stems. However, furniture from arabica coffee stems are considered to be delicate than robusta, yet both display unmatched strength,” he adds.

Subramani makes small accessories such as ashtray from coffee stems as well and he explains, “The shape of the coffee stem decides the furniture it will turn into. Unlike other furniture that are shaped geometrically, coffee furniture are sought-after for their unconventional shape, which is their unique selling point.”

Another craftsman, Yogish, has been in this business for over five years now, and has his workshop functioning in the touristy area of Kushalnagar. While some of his crafts hold the natural stem colour, he does paint them to resemble the furniture crafted from teak and rosewood. He agrees that the furniture crafted from coffee stems depend on their shapes and says, “I make tiny sized teapoys, flower stands and corner stands. They are prized between Rs 700 and Rs 3,000.” While he says that furniture made from robusta plant is popular, he adds, “Unconventional and one piece furniture are crafted from arabica plants.” All these craftsmen have customers all over Karnataka.

While one might find much more of these artisans in Sakleshpur, there has been a decline in their number in Kodagu. And the reason for this, as Subramani explains, would be, “It is because, the tobacco growers in Hunsur use coffee stem as firewood to dry tobacco and they offer better price compared to what one gets if it’s sold to a carpenter. Even the craftsmen themselves started selling coffee wood to these growers as it was a better deal compared to the income gained from furniture making.” While the production might have decreased, the demand has ceased to subside. They still adorn majority of the  houses in Kodagu. Moreover, like how the tourists visiting Kodagu never quite return to the cities without a bottle of honey and a kilo of coffee powder, a few like to take these beautiful crafted souvenirs to remember the Coorg coffee trails.

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