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Dr Roli Misra and Parvin Sultana
Date of Publish: 2015-09-15

Assam’s brass and bell metal industries not in sound health


Dr Roli Misra and Parvin Sultana

The tinkling from every house in Sarthebari was once the music of prosperity. Today, it conveys a metallic message: Assam’s brass and bell metal industries are not in sound health.

Factory-made replicas of their painstakingly-crafted wares and hazardous working conditions are two of the reasons.

About 95 km from Guwahati, Sarthebari is situated in the easternmost part of Barpeta district. It is one of two main clusters – the other is at Hajo – of brass and bell metal industry in Assam. Every house here has an informal workshop or garshal where a group of workmen called kohars beat bell metal into aesthetic utilitarian products that are an integral part of Assamese culture

Brass and bell metal products are an important traditional craft form in Assam. But there is no authentic documentary evidence regarding the genesis of the state’s bell metal industry. Some historical events and local legend point to the industry’s existence since the Mauryan period (321-185 BC). Written documents, on the other hand, trace its existence to 7th century AD when Kumar Bhaskar Barman, king of Kamrupa, presented a Kangshapatra (a bell metal item) to king Harshavardhan of north India. It is believed that a well-known artisan from Sarthebari made the Kangshapatra. History does not support Sarthebari’s link with the Kangshapatra.

The family trees of local bell metal artisans indicate that people started to live in Sarthebari from 14th century onwards. Their forefathers brought fame to the area by receiving awards from the kings during the Ahom regime, and later from the British rulers and governments in post-independence India.

Bell metal items have utilitarian and aesthetic value in Assam; they are de rigueur in marriages and religious functions while eating on bell metal plates is considered healthy. Items commonly made are cymbals, bhogjhora, dugdugi, pikdani, bankahi, banbati, Buddhist taal used for incantations, and dofola bati used by some tribal communities for marriage ceremony.

The bell metal industry has been facing myriad problems for two decades now. Kohiram Das, a master craftsman, foresaw this in 1933 and formed the Assam Cooperative Bell Metal Utensils Manufacturing Society Limited to safeguard the interests of the workers.

Brass and bell metal products demand both physical strength and artistic skill. Each worker specializes in a particular piece of work and makes only one part of a product. Workers feel that these items, adorned with intricate designs, cannot be made by machines, thus limiting the scope for mechanization.

Scarcity of charcoal and broken bell metal products – much of it without the right copper-zinc proportion – is hitting the industry hard. The cooperative society helps source the raw materials but the government plays a negligible role. Difficult working conditions take a toll on the workers’ health. If informal set-ups in the households affect work during the rainy season, long periods of inhaling toxic gases from burning charcoal have make the workers vulnerable to chest pain, respiratory disorders and, in some cases, premature graying of hair. Long hours of beating metal have also lead to posture-related disorders. The physical strain invariably cuts the artisans’ careers short and pushes them into abject poverty.

The history of the brass industry too has no documentary proof. But it is believed to have been born when the Maria Muslims settled in Assam after the war at Koliabar between General Turbak and Ahom soldiers in 1532 AD.

The standout brass products are the traditional xorai and pan bota (for serving betel nut to guests) besides mementos and figurative artworks. The xorai, in various sizes and designs, is used for offerings in Naamghars (Vaishnav prayer halls) as well as in various public and private functions.

Despite being an important part of Assamese tradition and culture, the brass industry is facing a number of challenges compounded by the absence of a strong union like that of the bell metal workers. Brass workers depend on local dealers for raw materials; they are at the mercy of the mahajans who set the prices according to their convenience. If that were not enough, the workers are facing stiff competition from machine-made products made outside Assam. These machine-made products have better polish, are cheaper and are thus preferred as gift items.

Workers of both the industries fear duplication of their work. Customers fail to differentiate between the originals and replicas and often take products that retailers procure from outside the state for a higher margin.

In the case of both brass and bell metal, the profession is passed on from one generation to another even if it is not profitable. The newer generations take it up as the last option because of unemployment or lack of better opportunities, and are thus disinclined to learn the intricacies.

But this internationally famous handicraft can be made a viable livelihood option with government intervention in the form of steady supply of raw material, easy loans, minimum health insurance and proper marketing facilities. Initiatives should also be taken to provide training and capacity-building measures to the artisans. A larger role of the cooperatives can go a long way in safeguarding the artisans’ interests too.

( Dr Roli Misra teaches Economics in D.B.S College, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Her interest areas are Gender and Migration.  Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in B.N College, Dhubri of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, Development and the Northeast, Gender etc.)



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