The hill stations of South India have long been a hub for the non-conformist, out-of-the-box thinker. People from differing walks of life and from around the world come to Kodaikanal with dreams of creating a space of peace for themselves amidst the wildlife and in the lap of nature, with clearly defined intentions of being as sustainable or eco-friendly as possible. This might take the form of their housing, perhaps constructed from environmentally safe material; their agricultural techniques; their adoption of appropriate alternative technologies, like solar and biogas; or simply their keen drive to bring together communities and create respectable employment.
Workshops in Kodaikanal are a natural progression of these interests. Urban-turned-rural elites from near and far are keen to learn and contribute to such projects, communities, and initiatives. From eco-friendly house construction to natural soap making in the past to art and craft workshops today, the town offers these unique learning opportunities if you know where to look!A donation-based tree house building workshop, run by brothers Aum and Narayan Keita of Pettuparai, is very popular. Made primarily with bamboo, with reliance on a few other kinds of wood, these intuitive structures can house 30 people, have multiple levels, and are finished with refined elegance. Participants learn how to choose a tree, come up with a design, treat the materials, and execute the building process from the ground up. The Keita brothers have conducted such workshops in Chirik Khun (Manipur), Saraya Ecostay (Goa), and Off the Grid (Karnataka), each containing around 10–12 participants.
Their project moniker is ‘Once Upon a Tree’. One of the tree houses built by them was featured in National Geographic magazine last year. It is located in Spice Valley, Kodaikanal, and is no mean feat, involving doing everything from scratch themselves. Long culms of bamboo, carefully selected and cut, are treated in flowing water for a few months in an intricate curing process, learnt by workshop attendees. This treatment is necessary for protection against termites and the elements. Narayan says, ‘If you do not have access to flowing water, even a tank of water with borax added to it can cure the bamboo.’
Bamboo, just like hemp, is a widely unused material in modern society, mainly due to the lack of any cultural awareness of the plant today, and perhaps also due to our tendency to follow pre-existing routes for construction, such as using cement and steel. Of about 1300 species of bamboo (which is actually a type of giant grass) only a handful are suitable for construction, fabrics, eating etc. However, their impressive growth rate, high tensile strength, and flexibility make a compelling case for their use.
The brothers have hosted these 7–10-day tree house building workshops around the country. Their success with these has inspired them to take their sharing of DIY skills in a new direction, teaching people how to create wood-fire ovens for baking pizzas, breads, and cakes. When we spoke to Narayan, we caught him in the middle of a fresh project—building a cobb kitchen under the tree house. Cobb is an ancient building technique using clay and straw, a wonderful example of a DIY skill that can be used to build one’s home or structures within a home. The brothers have recently successfully completed a clay pizza oven workshop, using natural earth building techniques. Emphasising the importance of using only sustainable materials, they avoid using mainstream methods and materials of construction as much as possible. Cobb can be made in several ways, with different mixtures and ratios of clay, sand, straw, gravel, mortar, and, in the case of pizza ovens, firebricks. One of the most amazing things about this two-day workshop was that it was completely donation-based, highlighting that their passion for education and sharing these skills trumps any financial incentive.
When discussing difficulties encountered while conducting such workshops during the pandemic, Narayan is optimistic. ‘This is a chance for children to step out of their schools and books. They can climb trees and learn practical, hands-on knowledge that pre-Covid times did not necessarily provide the space for.’
Another interesting DIY workshop that has been taking place in Kodaikanal is hosted by photographer and mushroom-grower Vinay Parade. His venture, Prayogashala, works primarily with growing oyster mushrooms, and over the last few years he has developed efficient techniques that focus on using less, reusing materials, and ensuring long-term sustainability via cyclic and upcycling methods. Set up a few years ago, Prayogashala also works with permaculture techniques, with the purpose of soil regeneration. Vinay has spent the last few years restoring soil health to his land, as well as focusing on sustainable building for his homes; indeed, mushroom growing is a part of this holistic approach.
The workshops provide information on the basics needed to understand, conceptually and practically, oyster mushroom growing. The cost per participant is Rs. 3000, which includes materials, a meal, and the take home of the ready-to-fruit bag they make during the workshop, along with one 1 kilo of spawn. Having experimented with a range of materials, including banana leaves, Vinay says rice and millet straw seem to be the best. ‘After creating a relationship and developing a rapport with certain rice farmers in the plains, I can pick up a good quantity of straw at an affordable price from farmers I know to be ethical and organic,’ he says.
The receptacles he uses are discarded empty paint buckets, which he drills holes into, and he ensures that the sterilisation processes are basic and efficient. People attending these workshops can take home sound theory on the growth of these fungi, along with a solid technique to implement the theory using materials available around them, wherever they may live. Vinay even helps put them across to good-quality spore growers in their respective home cities. An average of 8-10 people end up attending his workshops usually.
Dhruv Choudhry, fungi enthusiast, head of Chill Panther Media, and one of the participants of a workshop organised by Vinay in Bengaluru, is appreciative of the effort that has gone into the process. ‘Vinay has been consistently resourceful and supportive, even after the workshops. What I liked the most was that he provided low-tech solutions and alternatives to conventional mushroom growing. Conventional mushroom farming often comes with its share of single-use plastic waste. Sterilisation also often requires a lot of heat and energy. Vinay has simple solutions like using paint buckets and cold sterilisation, which truly can be applied in any context with what people have around them,’ he says.
Now, Vinay is attempting to grow wine cap mushrooms, which can be harvested directly from the soil and need no substrate or receptacles. This makes the process more eco-friendly, and so a worthy choice, despite the wine caps needing more time to myceliate. Mushrooms are only the fruiting body of the fungi, mycelium being the larger interconnected, underground fungal neural network.
Vinay has also conducted one-day mushroom growing workshops in other parts of the country, including Mumbai and Pune. For his workshops, he tries to create opportunities for equal participation by local and underprivileged people for lesser or no fees, while also drawing in urban crowds for a fixed rate. This passion for spreading awareness of the magnificence of mycelium is relatable to the energy present in the treehouse building workshops.
When asked about the new pandemic paradigm, Vinay seems optimistic about online teaching as a viable alternative, so long as straw can be accessed locally. ‘We can manage to send you fungal spores by post, but it is redundant to send straw by mail!’ he says with a chuckle.
Boho Kodai, a homestay near Munjikkal, is unique in curating a space that hosts a mix of tourists and locals for their workshops. Aside from a regular silambam class that happens thrice a week, Boho Kodai has also seen a macrame workshop run by Andrea Amaya, a Kodaikanal resident, in mid-July. With all the materials provided, participants just have to attend the three-hour event and get to take back a beautiful, finished product at the end.
Another such workshop at Boho Kodai, held at the end of July, was Art for All (Rs 799), conducted by Anvita Raj. ‘The simple intention was to have a fun evening where children and adults let go of any preconceived notions of what making art is all about. It was a three-hour workshop, in which I guided them step by step, from sketching with pencils to using a brush to paint,’ she says. At the end, participants all had stunning panoramas of the Kodaikanal skyline, and 20 percent of the sign-up fee also went directly to a campaign to make Kodaikanal plastic free, by contributing to The Story Circle, an Instagram page dedicated to rethinking waste.
Cherian Thomas, the owner of Boho Kodai, sees an opportunity for such workshops due to the mix of tourists and the local crowd in Kodai. ‘There are a few schools, Kodaikanal International School for one, that have a lot of curious students and faculty alike, always keen to learn something new, unique, and interesting. Combined with the influx of tourists, which we reach out to via various hostels around the city, along with our own Boho Kodai, we can ensure a base number of 10–15 participants will easily sign up for any workshop!’
Some workshops are held in Kodai but expand to a larger audience, like Roundstone Farm’s permaculture course, which had participants from all over the world and operated out of Kodai, earlier. Neha Sumitran, a Kodaikanal resident, writer, and TKC’s Food editor, has been offering her own virtual gardening workshops (Rs 4000 per head for a four-day workshop, open to barter with small businesses) during the pandemic, along with her husband, Vahishta Mistry. Rather than focus on output and yields, her four-class sessions, spread over two weekends, revolve more around sensitive observation, conceptually understanding plants and soil, and mapping out a nice garden for anyone, no matter their availability of space.
‘Ultimately, we would like people to reconnect intuitively to what they already know. To nurture something that is growing is inherent in all of us. We do, of course, provide solid factual data on potting mixtures, areas of sunlight to plant in, and the times of the year to plant different seeds. However, the focus is more on instigating an already underlying sense of curiosity about the natural world,’ she says.
In Kodaikanal, people’s passions appear to propel these projects, regardless of the money that may or may not flow in. This prioritisation of knowledge over money, seemingly incorporated into the visions of all these Kodaikanal-based DIY workshops, makes them unique and, in terms of feedback from participants, far more enjoyable and effective too.