Ancient art of making beads


Khambat is one of four major centres — along with Lothal, Nagwada and Nagara — where the ancient art of bead making originated about 5000 years ago. Recently, large earthen jars studded with stone beads, dating back to 2500 BC, were discovered in this remote Gujarat village.

Today, they don’t make bead-studded earthenware at Khambat. But the art of ornamentation, as practiced by generations of bead makers, is still alive there. They are casting red, blue and white agates onto earrings, necklaces, bracelets and pendants, and putting them up for sale. Says Rasool Sheikh, a 47-year-old artisan who learnt the craft from his father as a child: “Anybody living in Khambat becomes a bead maker automatically. It requires a bit of patience and persistence as the process can take up to four months.”

The procedure though, is fairly simple. Besides, the area surrounding Khambat is so rich in mineral deposits that it doesn’t cost much to set up a workshop and be in business. “The rocks from the hillside are initially broken and put out in the sunshine to dry,” informs Sheikh, while demonstrating the bead making process. The next step is heating, which makes the rocks easier to flake. A pointed iron stake, fixed to the ground does this.

The flaked nodule is ground and given a globular shape against a hard sandstone. Different kinds of grinding stones are used for the beads, depending upon their size, shape, texture and use. The creativity of the artisan comes into play at this stage. Next comes drilling. With carnelian and agates, diamond-tipped drills are used. These are of two varieties: One, with a single rounded depression is called tekni and the other, with two tiny rounded diamonds at the tip, is called sayedi.
Thereafter, the beads are put through polishing — a process that requires fine grinding with different grades of abrasive. Usually emery powder is mixed with lac and shaped into a wheel. The wheel is turned on a lathe by one hand while the bead is held against it with the other.

Then comes the last stage — heating. The beads are heated several times till they turn reddish-orange or deep icy-blue in tiny earthenware pots covered with ash in kilns. Saw dust is used for low heat and dried cow dung or charcoal is used for higher temperatures. “The temperature is restricted to about 350 degrees celsius,” informs Rashid, Sheikh’s son who has completed his Intermediate course in science from the Khambat High School. As the only member in Sheikh’s family who has gone through high school, Rashid takes care of the accounts and marketing of beads.
“My aim is to form a cooperative society with the villagers so that we can eliminate the middle-men who get into our business. In the long run, the cooperative should also handle exports. That is my ambition in life.”

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