The narrow alleys of Tanti Bazaar in Old Dhaka are adorned with small jewellery shops. Gold jewellery of Tanti Bazaar was once a booming and glorious trade since the golden days of the eighteenth century.
The spine of this business is the goldsmiths, who with mere hands and minimal use of machinery have brought fame and fortune to the trade, creating a rich heritage.
Fifty-year-old Sujit Das (all names have been changed to protect privacy), one such goldsmith, eased his aged spine a little bit, wearily stretching his arms and legs. A few brief hours of sleep had left him drowsy. But the necklace he had been working on late last night needed to be completed. Still bare-chested and like his colleagues not caring to put a shirt on in this hot weather, he sat behind one of the low wooden tables to begin the day.
“The 'mohajon' had brought an order for a necklace from a jewellery shop down the street,” he said, opening the drawer and bringing out the laminated piece of paper that displayed the design. “The whole process of making jewellery can take anywhere from five days to a month.”
Jewellery making in Tanti Bazaar is a traditional and old-fashioned process. When you enter a workshop, you will see several individual desks, quite small in breadth and indeed very low in height, about knee-height. Each worker sits behind the table on the floor or a small tool or a cushion to work.
The role of machinery, although vital, is minimal. Sujit pointed out to the hammer and a robust and bulky block lying on the floor.
“We beat gold to break and mould and bring out the shape and size we require,” he informed.
Fire is a necessary element of the workshops. A pipe with a small handle-type outlet is incorporated into every desk. “Fire is used in many stages, be it for melting gold or wielding gold,” Sujit informed.
To illustrate, he turned on the burner. The flame rapidly spurted out. However, the flame was too large for Sujit's purpose. He therefore took a thin blow-pipe and pressed it between his lips. “As you puff out air near the flame that's coming from the burner, the blow-pipe helps manipulate the big flame to reproduce a laser-thin one, which I will apply to the precise location I want to target,” he explained.
Another device -- typically red in colour, mobile and small enough to be held in one's palm -- is used to bring out flames.
Precision is the key to craftsmanship. Tiny stones need to be placed and fixed in position, and even half an inch here and there can mark the failure of the task.
The process of making jewellery comprises of several processes, with division of labour and specialisation quite evident in the industry.
Simple tools like tweezers/forceps come to aid. Even plasters are used at some stages. To pick up an object which is, say, as small as a tiny globule of gold, and then putting it in a precise position on a jewellery set cannot be done with mere hands. A pair of tweezers, on the contrary, can pick up and handle things tiny and fragile.
Therefore, as you can easily understand, the job of the craftsman requires immense patience, stable hands and a very meticulous and thorough approach towards work. A goldsmith even has to handle acid. “After all the processing, you need to bring out the golden colour of the metal. This you do by applying acid,” Sujit told.
This level of craftsmanship doesn't come easy. It takes years of practice. You usually start out as an apprentice.
The master, fondly called 'Ustad', employs the novice worker, taking care of his food, shelter and other expenses. In return, the apprentice provides his labour whilst learning the trade. “It takes at least three to four years to learn the craft,” Sujit informed. During that time, the master will prepare his apprentice, so that after 'graduation', he'll be ready to face the world on his own.
What kind of world will the future generation of Tanti Bazaar see? The past was wonderful; the present doesn't look very good for Sujit and his colleagues.
“The demand for jewellery has dropped due to soaring prices,” Kartik Bose, a goldsmith whose table is just beside Sujit's, spoke of the frustration they are going through. “Many goldsmiths have left the trade and took up other professions. Dhaka is not getting any cheaper. The goldsmiths are struggling to meet the minimum standard of living.”
Gold has gone beyond the reach of many people now. “Previously, the middle class family occasionally bought gold jewellery, especially when it came to weddings. And the rich people used to buy gold more frequently. Nowadays, this trend is declining, and affinity towards gold-plated jewellery or other ornaments is increasing,” Kartik sighed.
If this continues, this trade will one day lose all its glory.
The grave discussion left all the goldsmiths silent. From an unnoticed corner of the room, a young apprentice yawns as he wakes up from his makeshift bed on the floor, making his presence known. His 'Ustad' Sujit Das indicates to him, with stern eyes, to begin the day's work.
The care-free, young man makes his way behind his table. The wise master, still studying him, has become very pensive. Perhaps he was thinking what kind of future lay ahead for this young chap. Will the golden days ever return?