Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kutchi Metal bells...

Desert to Desert Jaipur to Kutch Passage-
Travelling from one desert to the neighboring desert was never thought to be complete   ecstasy of my new indulgence. 

My Kutchhi skill route….
Sibilants- the whispering sound, sounds with nomadic mode of life.

Located in western most tip of India, in the state of Gujarat, Kutch is an land where diverse ancient cultures from across the globe, survive in their original form even today. Kutch a land of culture, beautifully colored with its crafts and colorful people and architecture adds life to the rustic desert.

On one hand people from mainland India came to Kutch and on the other travellers, invaders came from mainland Sindh, Pakistan, Persian, Africa, Central Asia, and Europe among others

Mainly cattle herders came with their kabila to settle in this region to seek peace. With them the culture, music, and various crafts came, which led to an amalgamation of diverse cultures in the region. One of the most astounding craft was metal bells.

Bell or ‘Ghantadi’ or called in Kutch language is a design with purpose, a solution and a utility. These bells are aesthetically appealing, Acoustic and also a tool of communication which is in practice since many decades among the cattle herders or ‘maldharis’. The bell form, look, appeal all is so designed perfectly in the right taste and perfect context. This craft is impeccable example of sustainable crafts. The practice is ecofriendly and the product can be recycled. It utilizes the metal scraps and minimizes the extravagant raw material use. In the minimal tools and equipment’s and the judicious use of every material this crafts really makes it a patented practice, authentic and genuine design gifted by our ancestors that has been balanced by generation to generation because of its cultural context and also the market demand. It should be preserved and persevere in its traditional essence and contemporary taste and with this purpose I am discovering the new avenues and aspirations in this craft as a diploma intern at ‘Khamir ‘ ( 

Metal bells traditionally made in Sindh, which is now in Pakistan but this craft is happening in majority in few parts of Kutch and are coming since satyuga. Jura is a place which has the maximum number of family units practicing this craft, followed by Nirona, Bhuj and Nakhatrana. This craft is practiced by the Lohar (blacksmith) caste and is a Muslim community. Entire family is often involved in the process with men performing tasks of shaping the bells setting the sound on it and firing the bells. Women and children involved in bells coating and clay covering. In a family, the mystery of setting the sound notes is often mastered by the eldest and the oldest craftsman. 
I met two of the maldhari men name ‘Kan Singh P Soda Darbar’ & ‘Umar Ramju’ from Village near Jura, who gave me quite a lot of information on bells name and its use. Even the elder craftsmen like Haji kaka and Abdullah Satar bhai helped me with my research for bells history. So I am going to share all the informations through this writing.
‘Sambhar’, ‘Kharki’, ‘dambro’, ‘Chang’, ‘Dokkad’ or ‘Kharua’ in kutchi are many names which bears a common meaning that is ‘Parcel’ or ‘Gift’ or ‘Token’ and even ‘bell name.’
This the Maldharis used as a token or memories for gifting their brethren, when they used to shift their base.

‘Sambhar’ was also supposed to be the identity for the cattle. When any among the cattle was lost the owner was asked for the type of ‘sambhar’ it was wearing and that’s how they traced the lost member.
Earlier Maldharis were travellers. Travelling from place to place has given the bells many identity and names and that is how you find various names of bells.

The traditional names of bells were varying from region to region in kutch. If we go to Jura, Nirona side the history will tell that they were local currency equivalents for which the bells could be bought at the same time. Chota paila, paila, dingla, do dingla were the names of the bells rather than the 0, 1, 2, 3…, 13 numerification of bells. Therefore, with the passing time the identity of bells changed.

These bells Gujarati language is called ‘tokri’.
Small bells are called ‘mathari’ in kutchi which are generally 1”, 2” and 2 and half inches.

3”-7” bells are called ‘mathar’ which means big in kutchi.
Small bells were used more creatively by putting extra ‘chawk, tadka’ in it as per the maldhari. Small ‘ghunguru’ or metal bells and coins were stitched to the leather strap with small grains or articles stuffing in it that made ‘mur mur’ and ‘chan chan’ sound.

Every owner used the bells in their own creative and traditional ways. One more example of it can be seen in the bells with colorful ceramic beads pour in thread.

Bells (8”-11” bells) that sound sweet are called ‘chada’ which means sweet voice and the bells which sound heavy and loud are called ‘dokkad’ which means double sound.

Bells (12”-15”) are called ‘Chadak’ that means thick voice.

Bells (13”-15”) are called ‘ghant’ which makes mix of both sweet and loud sound.

Generally around six notes are possible on single bell. The bells are categorized on the basis of the sound they make and even the size. However Maldhar has their own way of distinguishing the bells. Bells with sweeter sound are ‘Kharua’ means sweet sound and is compared to cuckoo’s voice in contrast to this bells with loud and heavy sound called ‘dokkad’ means harsh sound and is compared to crow voice

The 13” bell is used for the cattle herd leader who leads the herd while home coming after grazing.

Bells from size 4-6 are used in cows and buffaloes that are generally left behind in the herd, so that when they don’t come back in time the sound of the bell could help in locating them and thus avoiding any kind of accident or missing. 2-3 size bells are used in goats, sheep and camels. 

The bells were really powerful, successful and peaceful way of communication in the older times. However, sadly this culture is disappearing as the big size bells are really expensive. The single 13 size bell can cost anywhere between 500-700rs and the bell last for 5-6 years because of rain and extreme weather conditions it corrodes faster, thus decreasing its life span.
In each size five to six different sound notes can be made which makes no two bell sounds alike and thus make every cattle leader’s identity different and avoids confusion. The bells can be constructively divided into 9 elemental. These are Yoke (from which bells are suspended), Crown (Hanging ring), Head, Shoulder, Waist, Sound Ring, Lip, Mouth, and Clapper. Metal bell craft requires highly refined skills and combined family inputs. Artisans dexterously hand set each bell’s unique tone (vaajji) with a tool called an ekalavai, a skill these Kachchh bell makers have mastered over the years.  The quality of a bell’s tone is a reflection of the artisan’s skill and three factors: the size and shape of the bell’s body; the size and shape of the ringer and the shape and curvature of the bell’s lower rim.

I am working with one unit in Jura from last two months and the unit is headed by Haji Valimamad Suleman Luhar (in photo), under whom his son Kasam Valimamad Luhar and brother in law Amir Hamja Alibhai Luhar works. Haji kaka is the oldest craftsman in this metal bells craft and is the master person for giving sound notes on bells. His bells are distinct for its sound. Hamja bhai is really creative in his ideas and are always ready to work for unconventional ideas and design. I have developed many new finishes on bells some are natural and some applied finishes.

Abdullah Satar Sumar Luhar Jura Wallah Bhai shared really interesting piece of information with me few days back. When he was only 12 years old he joined his family culture of making bells but however his elder brother and father were already into the bells production so he was given the task of assisting with tea and snacks service and even selling the bells in villages.He still remembers carrying a jute bag full of all sizes of bells and going to Jura, Bhuj market and maldhari’s place but contrary to present times the number of bells produced by the whole community in a year then is equivalent to number of bells produced in a day in present time.  Seeing his passion for going into villages for trade got him the award of most prestigious ‘Kamladevi award at the age of 14 only. Now he is 32 years old and has trained his entire brother who are now sharing the same work shed.
This I am talking about some 10 to 12 years back when bells were only used for cattle but now bells are used in a more decorative and creative way and have worldwide customers.
From his memories, 11” bell was called ‘patayi wale’ which carried 1 kilo Grains in it and in ‘Vorah’ market, Bhuj and still this is practiced. 8” bell was called ‘payele wale’ which means it carries 250gms of grain in it. So, it was like measuring bowl too.

Now coming to the raw materials lots have changed so far. The craft that was pure form of recycle now also rely on fresh mild sheet rolls. However, in the ancient time the Iron sheets was available in its pure (wrought iron) form that is why the bell used to withstand extreme weather and still survived by many ages but in present time sheets which are available are mild steel which has a high corrosion rate because of its high carbon content.

Bells surface was and is ornamented traditionally by engraving surface technique and beautifully using the rivets joinery.  To create elemental surface decoration on the head,  the small cap with triangular pattern rim is fixed before the crown  cap is fixed on the main cap (head) of the shoulder and which gets traditionally welded due to the coating and chemical reaction in the kiln. Thus adhering permanently to the head and beautifies the elemental detailing at the same time.
The most interesting and core essence of the craft is its rustic look surface, the traditional welding which takes place in joining parts of the bells .
Within each bells shape and rims of the bells can vary and could be designed acoustic. Some are conical, straight edge, undulating pattern and even in multiple rows of undulating lines. Sometime, the rims are reinforced or made heavier by adding thin strips of metal to create a new sound variation. The sonoric effect of bell is mainly because of its constituent element in which each element plays a significant role. Copper, Brass and Iron metal combination creates the whole chemistry of sound.

They also make bell with four sides with each side of different gauge. These bells don’t bear a sound ring but their sides are not completely joined to the other side of the sheet. The side is joined from the starting point to the mid-point and from the mid-point to the end point of the side is kept unwelded. Thus the four sides creates four different sound when hits by the mallet or attached clapper.

Dhamal- A leather hand blower which was used traditionally in Sindh but this culture of using dhamal died after battery operated blowers came in market which was cheaply available. Still, in Bhuj roadside you might find it by chance but only in a unit which is very small and works for sharpening agriculture tools. In Jura I found a huge dhamal which was kept as a showpiece only, not workable. Although, it involves physical labour and occupies a labour too. However, the battery operated blower solves the above mentioned issues.

The metal bells artisans’ sole dependency is on their skill craft and this is their livelihood source. Their product ranges from Bells from 0-15 size bells, Jhoomers or wind chimes and Morchang ‘musical instrument’ and this are in continuous demand in the export market and exhibitions stalls.

These artisans perceive education as an enhancement for craft skills and promotions and viewed it as surety for job. Thus, they insist the younger generation to have basic education as well learning the traditional metal bell skills at the same time. Literacy rate in this craft is around 48% and among which 13% are functional literate. They response to operations through bank seems to be comfortable.

Their market preference are mainly trader and shares 78% on the total whereas 6% each for Haat mela, Community, Entrepreneurs, and others. There was a time when the nomads of Sindh were the major buyers of metal bells but presently the whole craft has survived on traders. With the globalization and market shifts they are willing to change design and want to make new products through the same traditional process. As this crafts have got a good exposure from tourist market, Exhibitions and direct buyers they have also developed sense of costing and pricing and also they have understood the value of their skills. In contradiction to this exposure it has done much harm than good to the existing practice. As with the little knowledge and attractive returns from the temporary market they try to gain more and charge the same to the sustained domestic market or say local market thereby shrinking the market possibilities and cutting down the potential buyers. To make this crafts sustainable the market should be targeted rationally. They cannot price the product same for tourist market and local market and these understanding are missing in the aggressive and adamant craftsmen of today. They need to understand their roots, values, quality, precision and the ethos of their skills for which they were responsible once.

To give society the best work that has the same appreciation as earlier times. But to despair it is degrading. To produce more and more bells in a day quality has been compromised and the sound. To earn quick money product price fluctuates and always soars high. They should not charge less but also not unexpectedly high. The reasonable and the best price should be the market skills they need to be trained with.

P.S: The above article is from my research and design development project in metal bells at Khamir. The article is just a portion of the metal bell document.

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