Across the street from our house lived Shankara Panikkan, the village blacksmith. He had a foundry adjacent to his home. The foundry flooring was covered with fine sand, black in colour over years of heating and cooling and the charcoal powder from the furnace mixing with it. The furnace had a leather airbag at one end, which was compressed and released to force air to the burning charcoal. The compression was done by way of pulling a rod about six feet long projecting over the Panikkan’s head, when he was seated in front of it. The other end of the rod was connected to the bottom of the leather airbag with an iron rope as shown in the image. On the right of the furnace was a small water tank, to quench the heated metal and to the left was a small anvil.
Everyone in the village used to come to the Panicken to get their kitchen knives and farm tools sharpened and he used to charge a rupee per item. At the age of three (1965), I was attending the village Anganvadi (Kindergarten) and the classes used to end by afternoon. In the evening I used go to the Panicken’s foundry and watch him at work or play with his youngest son Krishnan, who attended the Anganvadi with me.
Watching Panicken at work was quiet entertaining for me as I enjoyed the sound the forced air from the foundry’s air bag made while it hit the burning charcoal. I used to observe Panicken heating the edge of an implement to be sharpened until it became bright red or yellow, then move it to the anvil and bang it a few times with his hammer and again heat it on the furnace. At times he would put the heated metal in the sand and wait for it to cool. The final action was the one I enjoyed the most. Panicken would heat the piece and then would immerse it in water. The enjoyable part was the hissing sound it made when the hot metal touched water. The entire operation was executed with Panicken sitting in the same position in front of the furnace and he never moved until he quenched the metal in the water tank. At that age I never understood why the Panicken did all these, just to sharpen a small sickle or an axe, that too for a rupee.
The main source of income for Panicken was not from sharpening tools, but from his lathe, housed in a shed between his house and the foundry. To turn the lathe there was a wheel of a bullock cart attached at one end, which had to be rotated manually at a particular speed. Panicken’s elder son Thankan, was an expert at the task.
Villages around our area grew sugarcane as a major crop (rubber plantations now). The customers at the lathe were the sugarcane crusher owners. In those days the crusher had two vertical steel rollers, rotated by a bull going around it in circles. The metallurgy was not that well developed and the rollers used to get worn out, especially in the middle, due to the extensive pressure the passing sugarcane exerted. As the rollers lost their cylindrical shape, their effectiveness reduced drastically and had to be turned on the lathe, especially at the two ends to make them cylindrical. Panicken used to charge 20 rupees per roller he turned on his lathe, but this bonanza came to Panicken on a few days, that too only during the crushing season.
The day Panicken got the bonanza, the evenings would be more entertaining, especially for the neighbourhood (no one had a radio then). Panicken that evening would visit the ‘Kallu Shop (Toddy bar)’. (Toddy is an alcoholic beverage made from the sap of palm trees by fermentation). He would return home drunk by nightfall and would sing folk songs and Hindu devotional songs. The way he used to sing would put any of today’s professional singers to shame. His favourite songs were the one he sang in praise of Lord Aiyyappa of Sabarimala. Panicken never undertook the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, but I remember Thankan and Krishnan undergoing the ritual.
In 1971, I joined Sainik (Military) School in Tamilnadu and my evenings at the Panicken’s foundry came to an end. After four years, Panicken passed away and the foundry became silent. His elder son Thankan now runs a metal fabrication unit with modern welding and cutting machines in the very same place the foundry stood. The younger son Krishnan runs an auto repair garage in the town.
In 1996, while attending the Technical Staff Course at Pune, we had metallurgy as a subject and was taught by the head of the department Dr Kulkarni. That was when I learnt that steel is a solid solution of carbon in iron and it is impossible to produce 100% iron like we cannot get 100% alcohol (Chemistry students would understand). The closest to 100% iron the humanity has ever made stands in the form of the Ashoka Pillar located next to Qutab Minar in Delhi. 100% iron would never rust as there is no carbon in it, but the technology of making it has been lost as neither it was passed down the generations nor documented. In case the technology was available today, iron would have neither rusted nor corroded and the paint industry would have not survived. The ship’s hull would have remained intact and would not have suffered corrosion from the saline sea water and hence the ship-breaking industry would not have flourished. Bridges and buildings would have had longer life as steel used in them would not degrade.
Dr Kulkarni taught us about various types of steels like ferrite, austenite, cementite, pearlite, etc, all based on their molecular structure and carbon content. Then he came on to the applications of these types of steel and the first one discussed was making of a sword. He explained that to get a sharp, strong and fine edge, one got to heat it to certain degree (over 500 degrees Celsius) and then cool it under certain pressure and the heat it to a certain degree and then cool it in the absence of oxygen, then heat it and cool it under a certain pressure, then heat it and quench it in water. Dr Kulakarni went into details of each action describing the temperature to be attained in degrees Celsius and the pressure to be exerted in kilo Pascal, the tools to be used and so on.
At the end of the class, my question to Dr Kulkarni was that how come Shankara Panicken could execute all these tasks, sitting in one position, without using any of the gauges or pressure hammers, but achieve the very same results. Dr Kulkarni explained that Panicken had done everything exactly as what he had taught. His eyes could recognise the temperature of the metal with the shades of red and yellow glow the hot iron emitted. His pressure hammer was his hand as he exactly knew how much pressure should be exerted on to the hot metal. He would cool a metal in the absence of oxygen by pushing it down into the sand on the foundry floor. Then Dr Kulkarni asked me whether Panicken’s sons know the technique, I said “no”. Then Dr Kulkarni said that the mistake of the Panicken was that he never documented what he knew.