The best crafts on earth are said to have a German connection. They now include traditional Assamese jewellery.
Months ago, Jaya Chaudhury met master artisan Krishna Das in village Brindabanhati of western Assam’s Barpeta district while researching on the market competitiveness of indigenous Assamese jewellery. They agreed this 2000-year-old handicraft needed some gloss to survive in the highly competitive gold market.
Renate Golz, an internationally acclaimed goldsmith from Germany, had an answer to their worries. And in January this year, she taught Das and 14 other artisans how to give Assamese jewellery the global edge.
The North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd (NEDFi) facilitated the interaction between Golz and the artisans at a 15-day workshop organised in association with District Industries and Commerce Centre, Barpeta.
Golz guided the artisans in following certain scientific steps of modern jewellery-making such as smoother-edged ornaments, better soldering of joints, more detailing work, smooth finishing, improved enameling, and stronger grip of earring stick. She also advised NEDFi to provide an improved toolkit for the artisans.
Das found the tips by Golz an eye-opener and very timely. “The workshop was indeed a big exposure for us. We learnt many things to improve our skill. Jewellery-making is our ancestral business. But this is for the first time that a goldsmith of international repute has come to us to break the monotony and lethargy. Our products were designed for the local market so far. Now we are confident of catering to the world beyond,” says Das, a third generation artisan.
“Our aim was to train 15 artisans who after receiving expert training will graduate as resource persons for other artisans in the state. NEDFi is also planning a follow-up of this workshop by the same expert to assess the improvement of skills of the artisans who underwent training,” says Asim Kumar Das, Deputy General Manager, NEDFi.
Barpeta has more than 200 families in Ghoramarahati, Nahati, Palangdihati, Brindabanhati and other villages who make traditional Assamese Jewelry. The uniqueness lies in various indigenous designs including Thoka Sona, Keru, Keseluria Haar, Prajapati Haar, etc., says Jaya Chouhury, who has been researching extensively on commercial aspects of traditional Assamese jewellery with meticulous field-work. She left her job as a lecturer in Asian Institute of Management and Technology, Guwahati to concentrate on research and in the process motivate the jewellers in making this ancient craft stand up to market challenges.
Jaya has also been instrumental in reviving some of the lost traditional ornaments such as Kecheluria Haar, a hand-woven chain almost resembling a large earthworm that artisans found too laborious to pursue.
“Traditional Assamese jewellery has a 2000-year long unbroken history to tell. The Kalika Purana, written during the 10th century, mentions some jewellery including galpata and satsori that are very popular even today. Ornaments decorated in different features of idols in ancient temples, sculptures and relics are the proven examples to trace the history of traditional Assamese jewellery,” says Jaya, who also coordinated the workshop.
The distinctiveness is marked by nature-inspired designs with wide-ranging motifs derives from faunal and floral species. They are characterised by simplicity and brightness. The rusty look of handcrafted ornaments – their visible imperfection, unevenness and brightness –attract outside customers. “The Thoka Sona motif, unique to Barpeta heritage, is inspired by a female goat’s udder. Each of these ornaments has a definite name and a story attached to it,” Jaya says.
Assam has three hubs of ornament-making with rich and historical tradition of jewellery making – Sonari Gaon of Jorhat, marked by making ornaments on pure gold; Ranthali in Nagaon, characterised by making ornaments on silver frame and gold-plating on it; and Barpeta, where lac is not used on ornaments on pure gold. However, increasing cost of production has made artisans of Barpeta shift to silver ornaments with gold-plating on it.
The Ranthali heritage received royal patronage in the medieval period during the reign of Ahom King Rudra Singha who invited artisans from Rajasthan’s Jaipur city to help these local artisans improve quality. Ranthali ornaments thus have traces of Kundan mina tradition of Jaipur jewellery, Jaya says.
Despite this deep-rooted history with unique and exclusive designs, the indigenous Assamese jewellery industry has been passing through a difficult phase with poor finance and market linkage, lack of institutional support, and outdated toolkits thereby making goldsmiths struggle to pursue their craft. In this backdrop, NEDFi’s initiative to help local artisans interact with a German specialist will help them add value to their products, Jaya feels.
Golz’s inputs have also made NEDFi draw up a roadmap for the future to help the artisans, These include granting of basic working tools and plate machine, providing working capital loan to the jewellery association, establishment of a Jewellery Research and Development Centre in Guwahati, provision of a showroom in Guwahati to display and sell Barpeta jewellery, exposure visit to various jewellery exhibitions to assess the current jewellery market, opportunity to participate in various national and international exhibitions among others. Prior to this initiative, NEDFi facilitated a group of artisans of the state to take part in the International Trade Fair in New Delhi to have better exposure and market linkage during 2013 and 2014.
Assam has 2.5 lakh jewellery artisans in the handcrafted segment and around 900 of them make indigenous Assamese jewellery. The artisans can earn between Rs 300 and Rs 1000 per day depending on skill and expertise.
(Ratna Bharali Talukdar is a senior journalist and a writer. She is a member of core group of www.nezine.com )