artisan

If you enter any kitchen in rural and small town India  chances are you will see these gleaming objects all around. On top of the stove, used to store drinking water, near the space for worshipping various deities, as dinner plates.

These are the copper and brass utensils that have been part of Indian homes for centuries – handed down for generations as part of the family heritage. In Songir, a small town near Dhule in Maharashtra making these embroidered utensils is a fine art, making its products much sought after throughout India.

The Covid pandemic has however hit this small, artisanal business hard, with rising raw material costs, disruption of delivery services and falling sales. For the last year and a half work here has been badly affected forcing businesses to close and many workers in the industry seek jobs elsewhere.

“The financial condition of the artisans here was not very good for some time already. But, due to Covid, the situation has become very bad. We cannot sit afford to sit idle for a year and a half” says Avinash Kasar, associated with the business of copper-brass utensils in Songir, talking about his crisis of livelihood.

There are more than five hundred artisan families in Songir directly involved in making copper and brass utensils, known for their fine artwork and engravings. Apart from this, about two hundred and fifty small traders and utensil shop workers are also part of the utensils business.

The artisans prepare utensils like parat, lota, gond, kalash, bowl and bucket mainly from copper and brass metals according to the demand. The urns made by the artisans here are installed on most of the major temples of the country.

COVID Response Watch LogoOne of the reasons for the good demand for Songir utensils is that they are durable, strong and attractive. These utensils are in high demand during weddings. Apart from this, there is also a lot of demand during the Diwali-Dussehra season, because people use copper and brass utensils during worship and eating as they are considered auspicious.

Many traders of this area, some of them former artisans themselves, have been buying utensils in bulk from the artisans of Songir and selling them in other places of the country. The raw material required for utensils is procured from Pune, Bhandara, Indore and Ujjain.

Many artisans in Songir testify that the demand for copper and brass utensils has been decreasing continuously in the market for some years. Instead, people are buying utensils made of steel or other metals. This is a contributing factor to the ruin of the workmen of Songir, exacerbated further by the Covid-induced slowdown.

Due to various apprehensions about Covid, since early 2020, traders and consumers  have also stayed away from these artisans. The lower expenditure on weddings has also affected the sales of these utensils adversely.

Avinash Kasars points out that the businessmen of Songir have already lost several crores of rupees, with little hope of either recovering their losses or getting help from the government to tide over the crisis. Financial transactions in the market have also been affected and artisans and businessmen involved in the industry are finding it difficult to get loans from anywhere.

Some non-profit organisations have proposed schemes to provide technical guidance to the artisans to increase productivity through partial mechanization as well as help with designing new products using new design software. They have also analysed the possibility of buying good quality raw  materials collectively at lower rates, and making artisans aware of various other  facilities provided by the government under its ”cluster” programme, that is aimed at capacity building of Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) in the country.

However, no concrete steps have been taken so far both state and non-state agencies to help the industry. In the meanwhile, for the hundreds of artisans of Songir employment is urgently needed to feed their families.

Though they have been seeking alternate employment it has not been easy for the artisans to get new work. Many artisans say that they have not done any work other than make utensils all these years. Though nobody knows exactly when the craft of making decorated brass and copper utensils is believed to go back before the era of the Khandesh sultanate, which ruled this area from the early fourteenth to seventeenth centuries.

As Satish Kasar explains, “Making and selling copper-brass utensils here is considered to be the traditional occupation of the Tambat, Bagdi and Gujarati Kasar communities. Families belonging to other communities have also been active in this work for some time. So, there has been a lot of competition in this business.”

After the Covid lockdowns eased a bit earlier this year, the utensils business started reviving for some time. However, with  the onset of the monsoon season, a time when copper utensils turn black in colour due to the moisture, production has been stopped again. If the rains persist work utensils production is unlikely to commence before Diwali.

Although copper and brass utensils are being made in some other towns of the Khandesh region of the state, most of the artisans and traders working in such places are from Songir. In search of employment, many artisans have settled in far-flung places and are earning their livelihood wherever they are. So it is not only the copper and brass business of Songir, but also the livelihood of the families outside Songir that is also in danger.

Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Covid pandemic. s


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