Goldsmiths are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves in a changing scenario

It was a golden circle without a break, where the link of sustenance and artistry was never lost. Once the family ‘thattan' (goldsmith) was a much sought after person. The matriarch would spend hours at his little smithy ordering traditional ornaments for the female and sometimes, the male members of the family. He became part of the life cycle, present through his ornaments during naming ceremony, the first birthday celebration, the rites of growing up and marriage. The orders sustained him and his family – and the community at large - as jewellery traditions lived through his skilled hands.

Today the Tamil ‘achari's' plight is pathetic. Pushed to a corner, he struggles for survival in a globalised age. Astronomical prices of the yellow metal, the ruthlessness of the machine, ever changing market needs and tastes have left him out in the cold.

Believed to be descended from Viswakarma- the divine architect- goldsmiths had a respected place in society.

In Chennai, Edapalayam is the hub for goldsmiths followed by groups located in T. Nagar, Triplicane and Mylapore.

Sowcarpet, once the centre for wholesale trade in gold jewellery, today it is no longer so. Sowcarpet is the aesthetic façade for Edapalayam, which is the sordid landscape of the goldsmiths.

In these tiny lanes, work those from the North and the South. The conditions are straight out of a Dickens' novel - sheds without ventilation, spaces that allow only one person to sit cramped throughout the day and the stench of garbage and refuse assailing the nostrils.

Many goldsmiths have given up their occupations. Vadivel's father, Thirunavukkkarasu, was an expert at making ‘addigais' (chokers). Vadivel is employed in a well known jewellery shop in the city, his brother is studying for his BCA. Many former goldsmiths are engaged in manual labour or work as waiters in small hotels. Some don't know where their next meal will come from.

“Business was fine till a couple of years ago,” says Rajesh, a Tamil achari. Taught by his father, this is the only trade he knows. He sits hunched over a piece of brass in which he is embedding stones. “We were getting gold wastage of 50 points, now we get only the making charges for crafting costume jewellery,” he says. “I get Rs. 200 a day of which Rs.4000 goes towards the rent for this tiny space.”

Vignesh and his friend Suresh belong to families of hereditary acharis from Arcot . They are busy turning out gold rings studded with diamonds. Like many others, they work and live in the same airless rectangular room. Vignesh says that they are going through bad times because “gold is now online and those who have the money are stocking it up.” They work 12 hours a day and get paid Rs.150- Rs.600 by the jeweller who engages them, depending on their expertise. Though a ring is sold for Rs.12, 000 , they receive only Rs. 450 to 500 for it. All the valuables have to be guarded by them, which is why they sleep in the windowless room with the shutters closed at night! For 100 gms they are given a meagre 6 gms as wastage. But both of them want their children to follow in their footsteps, otherwise, “there will be no one in the future to carry on the tradition.”

Dimness and heat

As you go deeper into the street and turn off into the alley, the long corridor leads to rooms where polishers, tool makers and those working in metal, struggle in the dimness and heat to ply their trade.

R. Jayavel, secretary of the goldsmiths' welfare association- Thennagar Ainigar Thozhilalar Munnetra Sangam- sits composed in his little office. “When V.P. Singh removed the Gold Control order, it struck the death knell for the acharis,” he says. “Ready-made items have now replaced orders. Imported jewellery is the latest threat. The previous government had issued identity cards to help us with medical benefits and children's education grants,” he states, pulling out one such card, “but now it has all stopped.”

Veteran jeweller G. Ganesh, who has no job on hand, points out that masons and carpenters have fixed daily wages. “The Government should fix a daily wage for goldsmiths too - Rs.500 a day for plain gold jewellery and Rs. 700 for stone studded gold jewellery.” he urges.

“Business is bad,” sighs M. Ilayaraja of New Mayuri Tools, who has been supplying tools for goldsmiths through his shop for the last 25 years. In Mylapore and the other areas, goldsmiths have turned to working in copper, brass and silver.

“The increase in gold price in the last two years has had a highly deleterious effect on goldsmiths,” says Ashok Kumar Kadel of Sri Jugal Kishore Jewellers, which deals in South Indian antique gold jewellery reproductions as well as silver jewellery and semi-precious stone beads. The belt for traditional gold jewellery in Tamil Nadu is Karaikudi, Madurai, Tiruchi and Coimbatore.

“NRIs are the maximum buyers for traditional antique reproductions of South Indian jewellery,” adds Ashok. “The thattans are helped when they visit the city every year. If only the younger generation appreciates the skills and jewellery made by the traditional acharis such as ‘ mangamalai', ‘odiyanam', ‘vanki' and ‘jadai billai,' will they be helped.”

He suggests the forming of cooperative societies and the transfer of skills from the old to the young. “In UK, the goldsmiths' fair is held every year and jewellers are not allowed to participate,” he says. His partner Vijay Kumar Kadel adds, “The Government should organise exhibitions to showcase their skills. Today, a mason earns more than an achari. Awards should be given to goldsmiths every year. The government can construct a building where they can sell their products. Jewellery specific to the State can be made available in these stalls.”

H.M. Sultan Mohideen , honorary secretary of the Madras Jewellers & Diamond Merchants' Association says, “We are not able to play an effective role as the traditional goldsmiths of Tamil Nadu, who number in thousands, are not prepared to change their mind-set unlike those from Mumbai, Bengal and the North. They want to continue to make heavy traditional gold jewellery when the demand has changed to the innovative and light weight. One can retain the old and still add new touches to make the pieces appealing to today's generation. The acharis need a cluster approach as has been successfully demonstrated by the match and the fireworks industry workers of Sivakasi,” he adds.

“In the past 10 years, gold jewellery shops have doubled,” says Nithin Kalkiraju of Sukra Jewellery. He also stresses that the Tamil achari should display more initiative and organise themselves. “There is a great demand now for silver jewellery. The younger generation is fed up with flashy gold jewellery – thousands of designs are being tried out in silver. And with the soaring price, it is a good investment too.” But whomsoever I talk to across the board, the ominous refrain is, “At this rate, in 10 years there will be no goldsmith left with the skill to repair an earring, let alone make one.”

(email: Kausalyas16@gmail.com)