Saturday, 19 May 2012

Crafts: Old was truly gold

M. Gopalan and his son Gopinath intent on their craft

(I wrote this article in 2000, when mass-produced, branded jewellery first began to take a toll on traditional Indian goldsmiths)

Theirs is a livelihood as precious as the fine metal in their hands. With every moulded shape in gold, with every delicate tap of the chisel, with every twist of the tweezer, with every curve of a link in a chain, a story of skilled generations unfolds o ff Avenue Road in the crowded, pulsating heart of Bangalore.

Bangalore, they say, is the jewellery capital of India. In its tiny bylanes live goldsmiths who form an Indian microcosm of the craft and trade. Malayalees, Bengalis, Marwaris, Telugus, Kannadigas -- they practise their profession with pride in the tiny shops that overlook the road front.

Peeping into the workshops, we see goldsmiths hunched over bangles, chains and rings, their brows furrowed with concentration, their tweezers placing twists of gold onto the curve of a bangle or smoothing the edge of a ring or placing a stone into a sett ing. They work unmindful of the buzz on the road, or the shrieks of children at play nearby.

The Avenue Road area, which consisted of predominantly single-storeyed houses even about 25 years ago, now looks suitably urbanised. As families grew by the generation and land prices shot skywards, the houses expanded vertically in this prime location.

Meet one of its oldest inhabitants, M. Gopalan, whose father Kelu Achary came to Bangalore from Meppayil in Kerala about 75 years ago. He speaks quietly of his family and his craft, trusting in a gracious God and the hand-hewn skills of generations. At 7 0, Gopalan is no longer able to craft the hand-cut gold bangles he was renowned for because arthritis prevents him from sitting cross-legged on the floor. But his 39-year-old son, G. Gopinath, is the family's torchbearer now.

``Ours is the oldest Malayalee family here (in the trade),'' Gopinath says with pride. His grandfather migrated to Bangalore from Kerala along with his brother and brother-in-law because they did not have enough work in the towns of their ancestors -- Me ppayil, in Kannur, Vadagara. Today, Gopalan's brother Govindan is no longer a goldsmith. The latter's sons too have opted out of the profession -- one works for the Reserve Bank of India, while the other is a screenprinter.

How do the family members feel about their livelihood? ``We survive because of our traditional customers. Many of them are the wives of employees at Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL), where there is a large Malayalee community,'' Gopalan says with a smile. ` `But they don't want traditional designs any longer. These days, they bring us pictures of film stars and magazines with new creations from big chains in Kerala like Alapatt or Alukkas, which lack the finesse of traditional jewellery.''

Gopalan winds the clock back to when Kelu Achary came to Bangalore. That was when a sovereign (8 gm) of gold cost Rs. 13, he laughs. And by the time Gopalan took to the business -- after the introduction of the Gold Control Order by Morarji Desai in 1963 a sovereign had soared to Rs. 65! But a gold biscuit of 10 tolas (116 gm) cost a mere Rs. 1,450 then, he recalls, and now it is worth Rs. 53,000!

When Kelu Achary began his trade in Bangalore, he and his family would take orders from big jewellers such as the Telugu-owned Vajramull at the Raja Market Circle -- the hub of the trade -- who gave them both the gold and the designs. When they returned the finished exquisite jewellery, they were paid in cash at once. It was possible for a goldsmith to live with dignity then, Gopalan sighs.

But the lives of the 10,000 to 15,000 goldsmiths who work in this area have gone into a decline since the V.P. Singh government removed the Gold Control Act. There is no assurance of gold quality any more, Gopinath moans, and just anyone can open a gold shop -- even unscrupulous jewellers on OPH Road, who pass off ``8 carat gold as 22 carat to make a fast buck''!

Former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh's liberalisation has snapped the goldsmith's integrity and his will to live, Gopinath asserts, as he delicately contours the edges of a gold bangle in his showroom. ``Do you know,'' he asks, with sadness in his eyes , ``that in the past year 15 or 20 goldsmiths in this area have committed suicide?''

What drove them to it? ``It's these huge jewellery `factories' in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Chennai,'' Gopinath stresses. ``They employ thousands of skilled goldsmiths, whom they fingerprint and photograph, as if they were slaves! They are paid just Rs. 30 t o Rs. 50 per day, or Rs. 4 per gram of gold... These factories sell their ornaments to large jewellery outlets in return for just a guarantee. Nobody values our craft any longer...''

Gopalan recalls that in 1962, every goldsmith's shop required a licence from the Central Government. That no longer holds. So, both the quality of gold and the craftsmanship are undervalued now.

His son Gopinath vividly relives his professional initiation by fire. The lighting of the flame. The shaping of gold into rounds or ovals. The tempering, melting and welding of the metal. And the detailed ornamentation of the kanni or ring or bangle that followed.

There is pride in Gopinath's voice as he narrates the sequence of his craft. ``But today, customers bring in any pattern they want and ask you to execute it -- whether it is from Coorg or Kerala or Bengal or Mysore. Or even a hybrid pattern,'' he adds.

It is a far cry from Gundappan and his family, who have always made the simha kadaga (or lion-mouthed bangle) for the Mysore royal family, Gopinath points out. Their dies and trade secrets are well guarded, for each kadaga takes 45 days to craft. Traditi on is still treasured in Mysore, he asserts.

What of tradition and Gopalan's family? Gopinath has four sisters, three of whom are married to engineers. His nephews and nieces dream of jobs in multinational companies -- and a cushy life in its wake. His youngest sibling, Prabhavati, is a contemporar y artist, who cares deeply about traditional crafts. ``When I was six or seven,'' she remembers, her eyes lighting up, ``my sisters and I would try to help Achchan (father) at work. We'd hold the bangle on the revolving stand with both hands and gently t ap it with the die tool. I fear we often hurt Achchan's hands....''

Today, Prabhavati's cousins still hand-cut bangles to order. But does the market appreciate their talent? No, all it demands is kitschy readymade patterns that machines turn out by the thousands. Even the pretty names for patterns, lyrical as flowing riv ers or a garland of jasmines, have been lost in the maze of the market. Instead, jewellery is named after films, Gopinath emphasizes, like the Rangeela bangles!

Gopinath's two bright-eyed young sons -- Abhishek, 8, and Akshay, 3 -- return from an evening walk down the street with their mother and grandmother. Can he visualise them as goldsmiths? He signals a negative with a shake of his head, vehemently wishing them a brighter future, away from the golden cage he finds himself in.

Gopalan's family lives in his four-storeyed house off Kilari Road. Life has come a long way since Gopalan first built a single-storeyed building on a 10x15 corner plot, bought for only Rs. 8,000 just 35 years ago. Today, the building, reconstructed in 19 89-90, has four floors which provide well-used living space. And a ground floor showroom facing the road.

If the 1970s and 1980s were a boom time for the goldsmiths here, the 1990s ushered in a grave decline. But even now, theirs is a seasonal cycle of income, in common with their fellow craftsmen all over India -- the wedding season in South India, from January to April or May, brings in a regular supply of orders, which turn into a dribble later in the year.

As the scales hang in a delicate balance, we wonder which way they will tilt for the descendants of Kelu Achary.

Will the lives of Gopalan and his kin take a turn for the better? As the dying rays of the sun glint off the exquisite leaves patterned on the bangle in his hand, we wish this family a future of gold, not gilt.

(The Hindu Business Line 2000)

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