In the Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh lies the unique craft cluster of metal work, comprising over 500 artisans and with a strong revival underway! Uttar Pradesh, the largest copper making region of India, is the hub of metalware with Moradabad, locally known as Peetal Nagri (Brass City), being the largest and most active center for brass production. The craft enjoys a special place in the handicrafts industry owing to the fine, intricate hand engraving on the metal.
Brass – an alloy created by fusing zinc with copper that closely resembles gold – has been around in India for time immemorial. In fact, there is enough archaeological evidence to show the use of brass in India since the third century BC, when the ancient craftsmen were making most sculptures and idols of gods and goddesses using a five metal alloy called panchdhatu. In more recent times, cheaper alternatives like iron, copper, silver and alloys like bronze, bell metal and white metal have been in use.
The craft, in the form it is currently practised, arrived only 400 years ago, and was initially practiced by the thateras of the Jandiala Guru community. Later, the Muslim families who settled in Moradabad introduced a new level of workmanship and found great patronage under the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Over two centuries later, the British rule in India further promoted the ornate craft in foreign markets, creating its roots in the country’s heritage.
Today, sheet metal craft is used to handcraft a variety of items ranging from ritualistic objects like panchpatras, tamrapatras, sinhasanas, aarathi lamps (votive lamps), and deepalakshmis to more practical, household items like utensils, doorknobs, key chains, lamps, taps, trays, showpieces and toys.
The process of making the metal ware is complicated, with meticulous efforts going into the making of the products. The entire production cycle involves melting, casting, joining, scraping, engraving and polishing, and can take between four to six weeks. The bharatias do the casting, moulding clay from sand, resin and oil in a certain proportion, to which borax is added to prevent the metal from sticking. This alloy is melted and solidified, and individual parts are also joined together with soldering. After this, the surface is smoothened with sandpaper and rubbed with copper sulfate.
The craftsmen then trace the design by hand using chisels and pure silver wire. Then begins the real magic where they engrave the metal using five different types of tools and a solution made of wax and a bonding agent called raal. The object is now gently heated and treated with a solution of sal-ammoniac and earth, which makes the entire surface turn jet black. Oil is then rubbed on to deepen the colour.
Last but not the least, different ornamentation techniques like enameling, applique, etching, Repousse, tinning, embossing, and damascening are sometimes carried out to beautify the object. Often, the craftsmen also fill in the engraved areas with colored lac using chapra in deep reds, greens, blues, yellows, black, white and firozi colours. Engraving is definitely the most artistic of all the decorative processes and consists of various styles like japani, mehrani, chikan, bidar and burma bidar. The engraver does either shallow engraving called naqqashi/sada kalam or deep engraving called khudai/sia kalam.
With over 600 units crafting brass ware for export and home markets, Moradabad ends up exporting goods worth Rs 2,200 crore every year to countries like USA, Canada, Britain, Germany and the Middle East, which is commendable.
However, as is the case with every craft, the sheet metal work too has evolved and adapted to the changing markets – both domestic and international – with new techniques, mechanisation, tools and designs to suit modern tastes.
Subhash Sehgal, owner of Shri Hari International, has been in the family business of this craft for over two decades. Talking about the current scenario in Moradabad, he says that there are constantly new items entering the market and creating new buyers. “We are always innovating to make new items, some of which are our own experiments while some are provided by the buyers. I believe that this is the way to stay alive in these changing times,” he says.
He explains that the process has become very structured, with every labourer entering the factory knowing his work for the day and doing it diligently, which keeps up the productivity levels. However, the fact that the newer generations are not keen on pursuing the craft as a career has affected business sharply. “The villages have enough labour and skilled craftsmen to do the sheet metal work. But the city folks don’t want to do this anymore. Their charges are so high (it has gone from Rs 500 a day to Rs 800 a day) that it’s hard to manage. The future will be expensive!” he declares.
To tackle this problem, his company has changed the range of products they offer. “We are changing the metals, offering cheaper products, and even trying out new motifs and designs to survive. In today’s day and age, one never knows which buyer will like what,” he shares.
Luv Kakkar, director of Fab International, faces the same dilemma. A graduate from Amity University in International Business, he has looked after production, innovation, marketing, export management of the five-decade-old family business since 2012.
“Over the years, the market has definitely expanded and there are more buyers coming in. But they are no longer buying high-end or traditional products made of brass or silverware. In Moradabad, over 50% of the craftsmen are now using cheaper metals like aluminium, copper or stainless steel. This is why we’ve had to shift to more fast-moving goods like lighting, iron and glass votive lamps, wall art, mirrors, decorative items, vases etc” notes Luv, who believes that innovating is the only way forward.
He adds that there are still some buyers who are looking for antiques and traditional ware but their numbers have reduced drastically. “The market demands different things at different times. Not only are there newer, cheaper metals but the process itself has changed. These are all signs of evolving. Everybody has to stay contemporary and relevant without losing the essence of the craft. Times are such that even if you have a strong customer base, they may not be there tomorrow,” he notes.
Like Subhash, Luv agrees that while the labour is getting better prices and mainly working on contract basis, the next generations of craftsmen are not as eager to continue the craft. Still, he does not feel that the future is bleak. “There are enough people who are satisfied being craftsmen and earning what they do. A craft like this is so deep rooted in the culture of the place that it doesn’t go away so easily. It is protected by the family, who will ensure that Moradabad’s craft never dies,” he concludes with a smile