Streets that spell craft

Streets that spell craft

Streets that spell craft

A city whose original name was Venugram (the village of bamboos) would obviously flaunt the magical grass around in some form, even now. The  Burud Galli (bamboo street) in the city doesn't leave one disappointed. In fact, Belagavi has many such streets that bear testimony to the profession of the craftspersons residing there. Streets like Tambat Galli (copper smiths), Saraf Galli (jewellers), Kalhaigar Galli (re-tinning) trace their identity to the occupation of majority of people residing there. While not many streets have artisans actively continuing the family occupation now, some streets are carrying the tradition forward, despite hardships and competition.

Burud Galli and Tambat Galli are two streets where you won't take a second step without noticing skilled people at work. Step on to crowded Burud Galli in the heart of the business district, and you will spot men and women intently focused on the work at hand. Squatting on the narrow street is a middle-aged man busy scraping bamboo. At another corner, you'll see an elderly woman busy rolling thin strips of bamboo and giving it the shape of a basket. Her eyes are so focused that she will not even notice you're observing her.

Visit Mohan Korde's house on the street. His BA certificate is placed prominently on the wall. He is a third generation of the Burud community artisan to have settled here. He proudly shows the album of his bamboo creations. They include roti baskets, sieves, flower baskets, wedding décor, small chariots, lanterns, curtains, carpets, vases, arches, book stand and many such utility and decorative items one would never imagine could be created from this sturdy grass. These designs have evolved over generations. The artisans here say that they can see any design and replicate it with bamboo. However, without proper training or set standards of quality, the products lack finesse.

Making ends meet

Their creations have changed over the years, in tune with changing consumer preferences. Earlier, bamboo baskets were much in demand as they were used to store onions, rotis, vegetables, etc. Artisans now make lanterns, showpieces, decorative screens, etc.  Almost all the Burud families here still practice the tradition, where the whole family is involved in making one or the other object from bamboo, with the womenfolk preferring products like screens and small vases that require nimble handwork.  

The Burud community gets all the bamboo it needs from the wholesale market near the city fort. For this, each craftsperson has to purchase a pass from the Forest Department. This pass permits them to ferry the purchased bamboo to their place of work. The best bamboo, they say, comes from the southern Konkan area of Chandgad in Maharashtra. The Alnavar bamboo is also used. A bigger bamboo auction is held at Sankeshwar near Belagavi. A shoot of bamboo sells anywhere between Rs 60 and Rs 100, depending upon quality and size. An eight-foot ladder with five steps needs three bamboo shoots and sells at around Rs 500.  

All the products are sold from the houses, which also turn out to be manufacturing units, as there is no formal marketing facility. The manufacturing schedule is planned throughout the year, in tune with the seasons and festivals. Thus, making lanterns begins two months before Deepavali. Then it is continued with slight changes for Christmas. The wedding season, which requires wedding hall decoration, starts after Deepavali and continues till monsoon. The harvest season requires large sieves and storage containers for grains. The monsoon creates demand for woven bamboo screens.  

Mohan feels that the administration is unaware of the problems of the artisans, and no effort has been made to train them in new methods and designs. This year, the community made beautiful lanterns for Deepavali, but these handmade lanterns found few takers with the onslaught of cheap and flashy products. Training and exposure to new and better designs could work wonders for these skilled artisans.  

Tied to the past

A few kilometres away from Burud Galli is a small by lane in the old suburb of Shahpur. The old timers will narrate experiences of a constant beating sound emanating from the street. The Tambat Galli or the street of the copper smiths mostly comprises families with the surname Bojgar. I met Salam Bojgar, a young chap with a flourishing business in copper utensils. His house is chock- a- block with copper utensils of all shapes and sizes. He has stocked pitchers, cooking utensils, water storage pots, pans, kadhais, jugs and many more. Not all of these are made here. The Bojgars have set up their rudimentary furnaces in their tiny courtyards and five to seven men work together. Earlier, the copper nuggets would be provided by the metal merchants and the ready objects would be handed over in the evening. The nuggets would then be beaten into sheets of desired thickness.

Now they get ready sheets which need to be shaped. Four persons have to work for a whole day to make a large water pot. Two roundels of metal are fused in the middle and a third thick one is fused at the neck. The metal is heated and reheated to bring it to a shape on a basic furnace that works on coal. Small kids help in keeping the furnace ignited by continuously fanning it and in turn, learn the craft by observing. A fistful of ash is splashed on the heated metal to check the right temperature. A third man sitting close by takes over once the pot is ready. He polishes it by repeatedly rotating it and buffing the pot. He then proceeds to make the ubiquitous pockmarks on the pot without which the pot will not be sold.  

Changing times

The objects are made by the artisans upon order from the metal merchants. Utensils, pots, cauldrons and water storage vessels are made as per demand.  What strikes you is the lack of modern equipment and even a decent workplace. Wooden hammers used to beat metal are worn out and the artisans look forlorn with the meagre income that this trade provides them. The fancy metal ware in Salam's house is brought from Kolhapur where huge factories churn out any design you want in minutes.

It works cheaper for metal merchants to get the machine-made utensils than commission these craftspersons. A few members of these families are in the trade of re-tinning the copper ware. Also known as kalhaiwalas, they skilfully apply a thin coat of tin inside copper utensils, without which the metal will adversely react with food, especially acidic, and turn it poisonous. This re-tinning has to be done at least once in six months and was once a flourishing trade. A handful of these skilled craftspersons are into the job as restaurants and caterers still come looking for them.  Smita Surebankar, a historian in Belagavi, reminisces about an ancient Ratta inscription, which mentions different areas of the city being occupied by people engaged in different occupations. It indicates that the city was clearly demarcated on the basis of livelihood even back then.  

With all the skill and dedication, most of these artisans are stuck in the old mould and need urgent attention to keep their craft and trade afloat lest we lose this rich heritage of ours forever.  


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