Conquering disability, blind Shah Alam craftsman earns living with handcrafted woven stools (VIDEO)

Melanie Chalil
The father of four who is in the midst of expanding his business also makes coffee tables and dining tables. — Picture by Choo Choy May

PETALING JAYA, Oct 9 — Woven furniture maker Saravanan Velan has always been determined to not let his visual impairment define him.

He was born with partial blindness due to Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition affecting the connective tissues and over the years, Saravanan gradually lost his sight.

Determined to earn a living for his family, the eye-catching handmade wooden stools which boast colourful weaves have been the father of four’s calling card for the past decade.

He picked up the craft at 17 when he still had partial sight under the tutelage of a Korean teacher at the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) whom Saravanan only knows as Mr Yong.

“After I finished my course at MAB, I worked in several places in Johor Baru as a general worker in factories.

“I got married and had four kids. After that my eyes slowly deteriorated and I gradually became blind, now I can’t even see my hands moving in front of me,” he told Malay Mail at his home in Shah Alam.

Though he didn’t practice the craft after finishing the course, Saravanan picked it up again in 2008 as job options were increasingly scarce after his eyesight failed.

“The skill is such that once you learn it, you can’t forget,” he said.

Today, despite his physical adversities, the 48-year-old is the busiest he has ever been, handcrafting woven furniture, mainly stools in four sizes — mini, regular (RM99), tall (RM120), bar stool (RM140).

He told Malay Mail the stools are sturdy and can bear a maximum weight of 100kg, going to stand on one of them to illustrate his point.

One stool takes Saravanan eight hours to complete including weaving which takes up to five hours.

“On top of wanting to make money to help my wife, I thought it would be a good business.

“I like it because no one does in Malaysia, I’m the only one,” he said.

As a result, he’s had customers as far as Ipoh who were willing to travel to Shah Alam to collect the finished product.

When he first started making a living out of the woven chairs, there weren’t many orders but Saravanan said these days, he gets up to 10 orders for stools a month.

The nylon strings are specially knotted to help Saravanan identify its colour. — Picture by Choo Choy May

He received 18 orders this month alone, the most he has ever accepted.

Asked how he chooses the colours for the nylon strings before weaving, Saravanan said he would sometimes ask his wife or children’s help.

But otherwise, he has cleverly coded the ropes by knotting them in a special way — for example, two knots for blue, four for green, one for red, seven for army green and three for yellow.

“I only learned five designs from my sifu,” he said, using the Chinese term for master.

“But over the years I came up with my own designs and there are 12 patterns in total now.”

Saravanan said learning to transition from being partially blind to completely blind did not take much getting used to as he grew up among those with visual impairment and knew what to expect.

“The key is to take it easy and you must be strong,” he said.

“Don’t think just because we are blind, we can’t do anything — we only can’t see. I can do anything.”

The only help he needs when completing his handmade furniture is painting the wooden meranti frame. Luckily his wife and sons are always on standby to offer a helping hand.

To keep the craft alive, Saravanan is keen to pass on the skills to others living with vision impairment but sadly, no one wants to learn.

“People are so lazy these days. They prefer easy work like busking or sell tissues,” he added.

To date he has only taught three-visually impaired students who mastered four designs in four months.

“The most difficult part is tightening the ropes and keeping the lines straight,” he said on the main challenge of his craft.

Saravanan has also made coffee and dining tables and intends to launch dining chairs next year.

He also plans to expand his business by offering customers bookshelves, shoe racks and cupboards but one thing stands in his way.

“I’m looking for a place that can be used as my workshop because it’s too noisy for the neighbours when I start hammering,” said Saravanan who can be found at MAB roadshows and bazaars promoting his furniture.

“I want to show people that the blind has skills, the more blind people want to learn this, the better.”

For orders and enquiries, visit Uncle Sara Woodworks & Handcrafts or call +6011-1129 6758. Saravanan is also on Facebook

The 48-year-old learned to make these colourful woven stools at 17 from a Korean master. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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