India Interior

Hammered out by mechanisation

Chandan Mahapatra | Updated on May 30, 2020 Published on May 30, 2020

A creative, historic livelihood can easily stand the test of time if it were given some help Pics: Chandan Mahapatra

The hammers of the Barpeta bell-metal artisans are slowly getting silenced as machine-made products take over

Rafeeq is not happy to be photographed as he painstakingly continues to hammer a bell metal bowl into shape. An artisan from Sarthebari, Barpeta district, Assam, he says that there are many who come to document the work of people like him but it hardly ever translates into any improvement in their lives.

His fellow artisans echo the same sentiment as they recall the once-thriving, small-scale industry that has given them sustenance through quite a few generations. The artisans continue the handmade process, using traditional tools, including different sizes of hammers, pincers, files, chisels (locally known as balmuri, chatuli and akue) and local equipment for polishing the products. No machines are used in the entire process.

 

But sadly, sticking to tradition is not working. Today, the hammers of the Barpeta bell-metal craftsmen are slowly getting silenced as low-priced and well-finished machine-made items and competition from other States overwhelm them.

There was a time when bowls, dishes, puja trays and even water pots fashioned from bell-metal and brass-metal, an alloy of brass and tin, formed an integral part of everyday life in Assam. The handicraft category was only second to bamboo craft. But with mechanisation taking root, these outdated hand tools and old methods of production are no match for machine-made products, which are highly polished and low-priced and taking over Assam’s traditional life.

 

According to folklore, the love for bell metal vessels dates back to the 7th Century AD when the King of Kamrupa, Kumar Bhaskar Barman, gifted brass-metal vessels to King Harsha Vardhan from North India. The rise to glory of the bell-metal craftsmen reached its peak during the reign of the Ahom kings of Assam, especially during the reign of Swargadeo Siva.

Royal families of Assam preferred using bell-metal utensils as it was believed that the metal had certain medicinal properties and also worked as a cleansing agent.

Though even today Sarthebari reverberates with the sound of metal being hammered and taking the shape of dishes, bowls, cymbals and other items that are used traditionally during marriage and religious ceremonies, their popularity is no doubt on the wane.

 

One of the reasons for this loss of market may be because of not enough propagation of the dying art and lack of awareness of its glorious history. You find that even those considered master craftsmen are hard-pressed to maintain their livelihood. They feel they may have to follow their counterparts in Nagaon, Jorhat and Sonitpur districts of Assam who have already given up the trade and taken up alternative occupations. But that would mean the death of a creative, historic livelihood that can easily stand the test of time if it were given some help. The key issues, say Manas and his fellow artisans, are the lack of market strategy and insufficient supply of raw materials. There is also great dependence on middlemen and agents for both raw materials, working capital and sale of finished products. The artisans end up borrowing from money lenders, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

The artisans too need to change with the times, take to new designs and products that suit modern living and get out of the time warp they are stuck in. For this they need help and are hoping that it will come from some quarter.

 

The writer is based in Bengaluru and is a Company Secretary by profession

Published on May 30, 2020

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