The once-backward town of Sikandra, Rajasthan, has now become a thriving centre for trade in stone artefacts, says Prakash Bhandari.
A drive on the Jaipur-Agra highway on National Highway 11 in the sleepy town of Sikandra in Dausa district of Rajasthan, one could see hundreds of artisans creating stone art. A number of tourists passing through the area often ask the driver to stop the car as a large number of artefacts is spread out by these artisans who create wonders in sandstone sourced from the various quarries near Sikandra.
Sikandra, once a backward area, has now become a centre for trade in artefacts and a large number of buyers from various north Indian States come here to buy not only small artefacts, but also stone pillars, stone fences, chairs and various garden accessories.
Mostly buyers are from Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, but now there is a new flush of buyers from the southern States, particularly Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
The artisans also export to Australia, Canada, the Middle East and South East Asia. The items are lattice work, pots, idols of gods and goddesses, animal figures, lamps, pillars, temple models, fountain and furniture. The booming business has brought prosperity to the people of Sikandra who earlier depended only on agriculture for a living and the rows of huts have all been turned into concrete structures. The switch from agriculture to stone craft brought prosperity to the locals, who depended heavily on the monsoon for agriculture. Sikandra was poor and backward, but its fortunes changed when masonry and traditional home-building metamorphosed into a thriving artefacts industry.
“In our fields we would grow wheat and mustard, but because of a poor irrigation system we depended largely on rainwater. I always felt that there were not enough jobs here for the entire family. I tried to go to Jaipur to work as a labourer, but could not fit in with the urban culture. We wasted a lot of time as we would finish our job in the farm by afternoon. However, I saw my friend Kalu Ram, utilising his time after the farm work to carve stone using traditional tools. He would make Rs.50 to Rs.60 per day additionally whereas we would waste our time sipping tea or puffing at a bidi. Then Kalu Ram asked me to help him in his work and for working two to three hours he paid me Rs.12 to Rs.15 a day. He further honed my skills and I started earning Rs.100 a day. Now, we are four male members of the family doing this, and between us we make about Rs.60,000 to Rs.70,000 per month by taking job works of the bigger artisans,” says Gainda Lal Gujjar. Gujjar and his family still pursue their work as farmers. But they make do by hiring people and the supervision is being done by the women of the family.
Masonry comprised carving stone beams and chaukhats for the homes of the affluent residents. The maalis, who are the gardening community, took to stone carving with gusto about five decades ago using traditional tools like chisel. Later the artisans began acquiring a range of tools and the sawing machine; motorized stone cutters were also used.
In addition to local stones, the artisans started using various colours of sandstones. Thus good stocks of stone from the adjoining districts of Bharatpur, Dholpur and Karauli started reaching Sikandra. But the transformation was ably aided by the adoption of new technologies. Rameshwar Prasad, a major trader, says, “The combined turnover of the entire Sikandra cluster spread over a 50 km-radius could be anything from Rs.150 crore to Rs.200 crores now. There are more than 400 small and medium sized units, which employ over 25,000 persons.
The youth of the area opt to attend the industrial training institute (ITI) and learn to operate and maintain the machines. Tools and motors that are frequently used in the processing of stone earlier required one to go to Dausa or Jaipur for repairs.
“Thanks to the youth’s interest, some of them acquired skills in not only carving stones, but also in handling and repairing small tools like cutters and motors. We trust them because they have been trained in the ITI and know their jobs,” says Khairati Lal, a senior craftsman.
The Centre for Development of Stones (CDOS), set up by the Rajasthan government, is a centre for excellence with state-of-the-art facilities with broad objectives to develop and promote and support the dimensional stones sector. “The CDOS has over the years helped the artisans of Sikandra to upgrade their tools and skills, and encouraged them to interact with buyers. Now they do business through showrooms and have built their websites and published their own brochures,” said R.K. Gupta, CEO of CDOS.
The Rural Non Farm Development Agency (RUDA), another agency of the Rajasthan government, has also played a key role in the development of the stone-carving clusters in Sikandra by providing them with market support.