Needs stringing

Needs stringing

The making of the world’s smallest beads is on the verge of death. But the skill and knowledge still exist. Who’s willing to take up the gauntlet of reviving the art

Different perspectives Glass tubes. Photos by author

The black-bead mangalsutra, the auspicious cord worn by Hindu women across India, is the instantly recognisable symbol of wedded status. And, while its designs are becoming contemporary and patterns vary depending on the region, the one thing that remains in this propitious safeguard is that it’s strung together with tiny glass black beads.

Across the subcontinent, black markings have been regarded as carrying potent talismanic protection and the use of black beads extends beyond the mangalasutra to cross beliefs, age and gender as a nazariya, a deflection of the evil eye.

Tragic switch

Yet unknown to many wearers is that the black beads that were once the tiniest handmade glass beads in the entire world have been replaced by plastic or machine-made beads. A cursory online search has over 8 million results for mangalsutra and over 1 million for nazariyas with each search describing the uniqueness of design and the beauty of its embellishment — none mentioned the material or quality of the black seed-bead used.

This act of subtle substitution has led to the death of an ancient, globally renowned tradition of handcrafting the tiniest seed-bead in the world.

The incalculable consequence of this act of substitution has led not just to the demise of a lineage of makers, but of the technology of their production.

Though the history of glass production in India dates back to over three millennia, with finds unearthed in over 250 sites, it has been surmised that bead-making technology developed around 1200 BCE. Glass-bead remains have been unearthed in over 180 sites with about 40 sites appearing to be bead-making sites.

 Stringing beads in Papanaidu Peta, a village in Andhra Pradesh that holds the knowledge of making seed-beads .

The difference between the glass-bead making centres lay in their process technology with the wound-bead method followed in the north — a technology that continues. While centres in the south followed the technology of hand-drawn bead-making that produced the famed seed-beads.

This hand-drawn process was an innovative and scientific leap forward as this technology was in effect a mass-production method that revolutionised the process of bead-making. Here, molten glass was pulled out in the form of long hollow tubes that were then cut up into the required size. This process increased production quantities and allowed for ease in sizing. Further treatment rounded off the sharp edges and the finished beads were polished and threaded for sale.

It was these tiny seed-beads that were in great demand not just in the subcontinent but across the ancient world. They became became a major global trade item.

Exported for over 1,500 years, first by the Arab traders and later by the Portuguese, the network extended from Rome to China and to Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya and other parts of Africa. Their predominance across the Indo-Pacific sea routes in the 10th C made them one of the most important items traded in that region.

Obviously, an item of great status, the drawn-glass beads have been found in royal tombs. In his seminal work Towards a Social History of Beadmakers, Peter Francis Jr states — “the Indo-Pacific bead is found in archaeological sites from South Africa to South Korea. For 2,000 years, it was the most important trade bead of all times, and perhaps the most ubiquitous trade item — certainly of glass — in the ancient world.”

India was the envy of the world and bead-making centres were visited not only by traders but others who studied the technology. While archaeological finds suggest there were several centres where  drawn-glass beads were produced, it was dominated by the ancient port and production centre in Arikamedu (now in Pondicherry), where the tradition died out by the late-16th century.

Down they go

Though many reasons have been ascribed to the decline of the vast trading network that had been built over the centuries, the Indian propensity to share oral knowledge and the migratory predisposition of the artisans had led to the knowledge of making being diffused globally.

Evidence thus points to the fact that India exported not only the final product but also the skill and technology of hand-drawn beads.

Yet, to fulfill the needs of the subcontinent, production continued and the knowledge of making was not lost. The heir of the drawn-glass bead industry of Arikamedu was the small village of Papanaidu Peta. Located at a distance of 160 km inwards in the Deccan from the original port site, Papanaidu Peta is in Andhra Pradesh at a distance of about 21 km from Tirupati. With a total area of 1 sq km, its ‘fame’ lay in it being the only place in the world that once practised and continues to have the knowledge and skill of the 3,000-year-old technology of hand-making seed-beads.

Abandoned bead-making workshed. Photo by author

Although it is hard to estimate when bead production started here, the place’s climatic conditions and natural resources made it an ideal site. Its existence as a well-entrenched centre of bead production was first recorded by D Narayan Rao in his Report of the Survey of Cottage Industries for the Imperial government of Madras (1927-29). Rao described the hollow glass tubes as ‘small as a needle’ with the ‘glass worked into minute beads’ where ‘the size and thickness of the bead averages from the mustard to a gingelly seed.’

This cautionary tale of its decline lay in the fact that while the glass-bead makers here were making and supplying the minute black mangalsutra beads among the other beads, they were hidden from the world by a chain of middlemen who never let on where the bead came from.

It was in the 1990s that the handmade beads were slowly and subtly exchanged for low-priced machine-made beads of plastic and glass. And as retailers were unaware where the beads came from, they could not deal directly with the makers, and the decline set in. The last time the glass furnace was lit in Papanaidu Peta was two years ago.

As the memory of its production process fades, the minutest glass seed-bead in the world linked to living culture and heritage is poised at the edge of being lost. However, the technology used in making it still exists. The tools, furnaces are all locally made. Space is available and the skilled artisans are ready to revive the process.

Is someone ready to pick up the gauntlet?