This article is featured on following website: www.craftrevival.org (The Encyclopedia of Intangible Cultural Heritage/InCH)
In January 2010 I informally visited Khamir – a registered organization and craft resource center situated in Kutch, Gujarat state, India. KHAMIR stands for Kutch Heritage, Arts and Craft, Music and Integrated Resources. Khamir is in fair trade which is an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims in sustaining and facilitating better trade conditions. During this visit, I was able to visit and learn a variety of Gujarat’s craft’s process, techniques, and tradition. I studied and enjoyed my experience with one specific product of craft – that is Metal bells. I have a dizzy memory of my childhood that my grandfather used to take me to the village in Gujarat where I hear some music while cow’s on the road walking, now it makes sense to me it was nothing else but Bell tied around its neck. Metal Craft jargon is very complicated so I would not go more into that but I will attempt to present in a way that is easy to use and handy for the reader, potential buyer, marketers, and student of crafts and more specifically Bell metal makers.
Brief History of Bell Metal
Many people know that Metal craft originated in Kachchh however it is believed that it is originated in Sindh region (Now in Pakistan after the Indo–Pak partition in 1947). Currently, most of the Metal bell making work is done in two Villages – Nirona and Zura, in Gujarat by the Lohars of the Muslim community their families have been making bells for as far back as they can trace their ancestry. The entire family often involved in the process, however, I found women and children are involved in the less technical work. Women’s work is to prepare or make a basic material, for instance, mud paste which can eventually provide finishing to the bell.
Use of Bell Metal
These bells were used to recognize cattle. They were tied around the cattle’s neck so the owner would know of their whereabouts. It is also used at the entrance to the home and as a decorative musical product, somewhat likes chimes, all the more since their tonal quality is scrupulously crafted. Craft designer and NGO’s are constantly in a process to market bell metal product with innovative design and rhythm. When I return to Australia, I found bell metal product in one of the local store in the form of a key chain and bell with heart with pearls surrounding it. Some designers are one step ahead of the market however Indian designer need to develop new cost effective design which also attracts huge appeal from the target market instead of increasing production of the same product with a minor change.
Making of Bell Metal
There are fourteen sizes of bells and they are customized for different animals. Size 0 is the smallest and size 13 the largest. The bell is made of iron and coated primarily with copper (Tamba) and Brass (Pital), along with a few other metals. They are made from scrap iron sheets which are repeatedly compressed to join together and to give them the requisite shape. The metal parts are neatly joined by expert hands by a locking system without any kind of welding. Then they are coated with powdered copper with the help of mud paste and then heated in a furnace to fix the powdered copper on the surface of the bells. Once cooled and ready, a wooden piece or gong is attached to the center of the bell for that characteristic sound which is beautifully sonorous.
The sound that emanates from each bell depends on the artisan’s skill and three factors: (1) the size and shape of the Bell’s body; (2) the size and shape of the wooden strip hanging within the bell and (3) the shape and curve of the Bell’s bottom rim. Denting of the bell to get the perfect pitch is also done by hand, by repeated thrashing with a hammer. Bell making in Kutch is a wonderfully sustainable craft as the raw material is metal scrap which is purchased from junk yards and the only use of energy is in the furnace for preparing them. Even the waste generated is minuscules, comprising of small metal scrap and burnt mud.
Who makes it and who sells it? (Please note this view comes from my very personal research and understanding and prize has been taken into consideration after comparing available prize on e-commerce websites and international markets)
I found it very interesting that possibility may not be denied that some of the NGO’s, Agents and Business group generating very good money out of the selling of bell metal products because their focus of the business is not on the domestic however export oriented. Generally speaking, one piece of bell metal product in size 12/13 being sold at $59 US dollar (2655 INR Rupees) and on the other side, community or individual person who makes it under the guidance of NGO’s or designer charge about 250 INR rupees a day where total process may take up to 2 days that means total 500 INR Rupees labour that is equivalent to $11.11 US Dollar. Where the material cost including sheet metal, Coals will be around $14 US dollar if it bought from the wholesale market. There is, generally no cost involved in mud paste as, it requires water, red sand (that is freely available in local area – as per the statement was given by lohar). So it seems to me that the basic cost of the 12/13 size bell metal is about $25.11 US Dollar where the selling price is approximate, $59 US Dollar. Some people would argue that there may be other costs, for example, GST, VAT, however, it is now well known that this cost paid by the customer on the top of the amount so basic margin of the seller (NGO’s, Business Organization) will be about $33.89 US dollar that means 57.44% marginal profit. This is one of the few segments where big companies do not want to enter and it has great potential.
What about other (Lohar) side?
There is another side of this business that is Lohar who are not getting paid enough. I, of the opinion, believe due to lack of marketing and educational skills, they are unable to target their market consequently intermediary like NGO’s, ORG. or designer come into the motion and digest most of the profit. NGO Meant to support local community however sometimes policy and action plan are different because policy represents compliance with legislation, however, action plan of the NGO’s and business represent need of growth and profitability. Lohar has more worked available however their quality of life remains unchanged due to decreasing profit. It seems to me that Lohar makes 18.83% profit whereas Organization makes 57.44%. Craft industry in India is weird as people who have skills and art in them, get paid less but it is also a responsibility of government to set up a training center, export fair and to work in partnership with Lohar directly in order to achieve overall success.
Another important point is Payment, even if Lohar (craftsmen) makes $11.11 US dollar profit; they do not get labor (payment) on time. Moreover, material cost invested by the Lohar whereas they borrow money from the local market to fund their bell metal work. So now when they pay off their interest, eventually they receive $10/$10.50 US Dollar. Unfortunately, Microfinance is still not easily available in the rural area where they craft industry setting up for a year of years. In order to remain a part of a business, Lohar has to keep invested $150US Dollar at any given time for the huge money making NGO’s, Businesses and designers.
Potential of Bell Metal Market
To support bell metal production and sell, export is mandatory and handicraft products are always in high demand all over the world however considering the statistic (2008-09) provided by Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts, India (EPCH) It has been noticed that US (27.57%), U.K (10.55%) and Germany (9.10%) are the highest importers of Indian handicraft product. The organization should conduct research in relation to the potential of bell metal products in other countries where import of Indian craft still need a push, for example, Australia (1.32%) it is a country with plenty of craft creativity people and consumer. Business should focus on such a target market.
In a Nutshell,
There are many good organizations such as, Khamir who provides service and resource to conduct proper research and development for the welfare of the community that engaged in handicraft, bell metal products and for their empowerment.
The entire bell metal business system should be internally consistent and mutually supportive that means everybody makes a profit while working but no one should aim profit by taking disadvantage of lack of community and knowledge access of bell metal maker, which is lohar. This article does not focus on the weakness of any group; however, It focuses on the current industry issues. There are NGOs and business around the India and the world works in Kutch (bhuj) for business and the welfare interest consequently reader is being requested that If you imagine about change, then it has to be holistic among all the parties.
Following photos are taken by Karnav shah.