Reviving A Forgotten Metal- 2: A series on the traditional Kansa metal
In the previous article, we talked about the origin of Kansa, along with the process through which it is made. And the Ayurvedic health benefits that it offers. From digestion problems to the sharpening of the intellect, eating in Kansa utensils can be overarchingly beneficial to all. But who are those artisans and workers who create this beautiful metal? What are their social and economic conditions? These are the questions that we aim to understand, analyze, and answer in the second part of the Kansa series. Apart from that, we also want to estimate the economic status of craftsperson. And workers who make such traditional products across India. Let’s dive deep into ‘Reviving A Forgotten Metal- 2: A series on the traditional Kansa metal’.
Part 2: What is the condition of workers and craftspersons in India?
Historically, most art and artisans have been dependent on kings and mercantile communities for patronage. After the coming of the British and other colonial private companies, the power and influence of India’s monarchs started lessening. The British also started pushing machine-made products manufactured in Britain. Hence, they would source raw material from India, make factory finished goods in Britain, and sell them in India’s market. As those industrial goods were cheaper than India’s handmade products, they started selling faster. India’s artisans became marginalized as a consequence and pushed into poverty. Because they were left without access to raw materials or a market to sell their goods to.
The situation did not improve much after independence as well. Artisans in India are still relegated to rural areas where they have little help from the government. Be it the Centre or State governments, which means that they don’t have the means to take up the traditional work full-time. This has led to a widespread erasure of India’s art and culture.
Artisan guilds also have begin to disintegrate. And many traditional art forms are lost as people move to different jobs. Over the past 30 years, the number of Indian artisans has decreased by 30%. And the vast majority of artisans operate in informal work settings.
The art and handicraft sector is the second largest employment generator after agriculture. According to the 2011 Census, there are over 68 lakh artisans in the country. Out of these 55 percent of them are women. Despite this, the country contributes to a meagre two percent to the global handicrafts industry. The National Informatics Centre attributed the dire state of the handicraft industry to the inaccessibility of funds, low penetration of technology, absence of market intelligence, and poor institutional framework of artisan groups.
The Glorious History Of Metal Artists
The metal manufacture in India has a glorious past. Archaeological evidence so far proves that the metallic culture in India is as old as the Indus Valley Civilization. The earliest non-ferrous metal used by men is copper, whose discovery and use brought about a revolutionary change in society. In Assam, one of the few states where Kansa is made, the metal culture is from the copper plate charter of Vanavalavarmandeva of the 9th century A.D. A bronze image of Lord Vishnu of the 11th century A.D. and the bronze image of Dashabhuja Mahishamardini Durga of the late Medieval Period. Additionally, the views put forth by the workers of brass metal production units indicate that irregular and insufficient supply of raw material is the main problem with production.
In “An Insight To The Bell-Metal Industry of Bankura, West Bengal, India,” a paper in the International Journal of Life Sciences, that the bell metal crafting involves a high production cost. The household economic profile of the bell and brass metalworkers revealed that most of them (45.83 %) belonged to the monthly income category of Rs. 3001–6000. Master artisans, constituting 12.5 % of the community were earning more than 9000 per month. Women are also a part of the carving activity. The data shows that the average monthly household income (Rs. 6062) and standard of living of the workers were miserable.
An Insightful Conversation
In preparation for this article, we had conversations with two sides of the industry, the producer and the consumer.
In our conversation with Lucky, a Kansa worker from Odisha. He recalls that the art had been in his family for generations. His father, who was also a Kansa worker, had passed on the knowledge of the craft to him. The craft breathes in a few districts around Odisha, like Kantilo, which is famous for Kansa work
He says that because of the decreasing demand for Kansaware, many people often leave this traditional work. And move on to different villages, towns, and cities in search of work that will pay more. Lucky seems to echo the sentiments of many craftspeople around India when he says that there seem to be no benefits in their line of work. Most people use steel, plastic, and ceramic now, pushing Kansa to the margins, leading to the impoverishment and livelihood erasure of entire communities. Lucky says that only old people are prone to using Kansa. One source of demand comes from ritualistic affairs. At Annaprasan (the first time a baby eats solid food) rituals, and other festivals.
During the conversation, he was if there are any benefits from the government that he and his family receives. He to that saying that their employment card (specifying that they’re artisans) does lead to some monetary help from the government, but even that has completely after the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the inception of the craft, Kansa-makers lived in tight-knit societies where they, as a community, took care of one another. But as the demand reduced, children moved on from their traditional lifestyle, leaving the older members with not only an economic but a socio-cultural problem. Elements of collective living remain through their union, the Kansari Samaj, but their strength is also eroding slowly.
In the initial conversation with my grandmother, Mrs. Bula Mukherjee, she recalls that her mother’s, meaning my great-grandmother’s generation was actually the one who used Kansaware regularly. Her views are essentially congruent to Lucky’s, meaning, she says that Kansa has ritualistic importance. Kansa utensils were part of her bridal trousseau when she got married. And it was a part of my mother’s during her wedding as well. While talking to Mrs. Leena Mody, an entrepreneur, and a homemaker, we came to know that she has been using Kansaware daily for lunch and dinner and she does not have any difficulties in using or washing the utensils. The immense benefit of using them far outweighs the hardships, even if there were any. During the COVID-19 crisis, one important benefit of using Kansa is that it is antibacterial and anti-virus.
According to Lucky, health education programmes at schools speaking about the benefits of eating in Kansa utensils could be a good way to encourage people to buy Kansa. Another way of marketing is to reach out to food bloggers, cooking channels, and culinary competitions to use Kansa utensils in their shows. This will encourage viewers to explore and buy Kansa and thus stimulate demand.
The Central Issue And Aatma Nirbharta
The main problem plaguing the artisan industry is the lack of visibility. The more investment goes into the industry, the more focus can be put on marketing, on financial analysis, on the branding of handmade products as desirable. The corporate gifting industry in the country has been growing at a rapid pace over the past decade due to the rising income level and aspirations of people. If this space is to artisans with proper government policies and subsidies, it will give a great boost to the industry as a whole.
To the path of “self-reliance,” currently being as “Aatma-Nirbhar Bharat,” supporting artisans is extremely important. Indian artisans have also because of a cultural shift in the Indian ethos where traditional arts and handicrafts have been left in favour of high-end European or American products (most of which is eventually in China anyway). In a race to give children a Westernized education, and “modernizing” ourselves, we have become rootless, and our artisans have suffered the most because of this shift in values. The erasure of art means the erasure of an entire culture. Self-reliance, as a nation, will come from the acceptance and support of our traditional art.