Chitra Balasubramaniam meets a wizard at crafting brass and copper vessels

Cooking in today’s age is convenient, thanks to a host of modern gadgets. The vessels range from non-stick cookware, copper bottomed steel to microwaveable dishes and more. Harking back to another era are the age-old cooking vessels fashioned out of brass, copper and bronze. These, however, have faded over time and have been replaced by more hi-tech glistening substitutes.

Laxmi Narayan Jagdish Prashad, Master Craftsman 1974 and Shilpguru 2007, is a wizard at crafting brass and copper vessels. His work has to do more with decorative pieces finely engraved and enamelled than any utensils. A reticent man, what becomes evident after much prodding is his fondness for old vessels, their unique shapes and how they were used. Jagdish Prashad says, “Purane bartanon ki baat hi kuch aur thi” (old vessels are literally a breed apart). They were heavy and shone like gold when maintained properly. What is there today? A vegetable gets cooked in four whistles in a pressure cooker. Where is the taste? Earlier, food was cooked slowly in copper or brass vessels simmering on a chula or a coal based stove. The taste was different.”

Prashad learnt the art as a child. What got him recognition was the combination of this hereditary skill with the art of decoration, chitai. He says, “I learnt chitai from Mohammadans. All their utensils, especially copper, have beautiful chitai or engraving on them.”

Even now, in traditional Muslim families, copper utensils are given at the time of weddings. There was no aluminium, plastic or steel, so utensils were made of copper and brass. Copper is also used in rituals for its purity. For cooking in copper or brass vessels, they have to be coated with tin. “Without this coating, cooking in the vessel will turn toxic,” he says.

Talking of his ancestors, he says, “They worked in palaces. The royals encouraged the making of new vessels — Gharas (pots), kanastars (jars with handle), parath (plates in which atta is kneaded), paan dans, buckets and more.” Today, he grins, “An old paan dan becomes a jewellery box and gharas become flower pots.”

His little workshop has several items tucked in everywhere; huge cauldrons, plates and pots in various shapes andsizes. Prashad shows a dish from Punjab which he explains was used for serving raita. It has a little handle and a pointed nose or spout through which the raita can be poured directly on to the plate. It is known as Punjabi gagar. A modern adaptation could be as a serving bowl at the dinner table. With its design it does away with the need for a spoon. A little bucket with a collapsible handle and a rope was an interesting travel companion. The traveller could use it at any well or pond to drink water or bathe and move on. The copper boiler from Amritsar called the Amritsari hamam was made of a combination of copper and brass called Ganga Jamuna because of its dual colouring. Similar ones are also made in Maharashtra, but these are taller and longer. Today, he rues, “They have virtually disappeared.”

He collects old pieces and reinvents them by working chitai all over it. The pot is filled with lac. It is then coated for a copper, silver or gold finish. Such pieces are used as flower pots in spas and resorts. An old vessel salvaged from the scrap yard is put to use. He adds, “No one makes vessels like these now. The joints in the vessel were done on fire, bhatti. Now it is soldered. Copper is expensive now. Maintenance of these vessels is high which is why no one wants to use them.”

With pride he says, “I have travelled, thanks to the Government of India, to various countries and have seen cooking vessels across the world. But their repertoire is nowhere near the variety and diversity of cooking vessels that we have here.”