No glitz. No glass cases sparkling with rows of gold neckpieces. In fact, not a speck of gold on show. The one-room shop which is Kunhikannan Jewellery, run by K. Baladasan and his brother, is minimalistic. Floral printed sheets carpet the floor. On the wall hang two framed certificates, one his goldsmith’s licence and the other safety certificate. Enveloped by the old-wordly, 58-year-old Baladasan sits cross-legged on the floor next to his working desk, the storehouse of all he needs. Sitting on a low stool next to him is a woman with bits-and-pieces of jewellery and chunks of suggestions. Baladasan listens to instructions carefully, makes notes and gives a date for the customer to get back.
It is customers like these who make Baladasan’s business today. People who come to him to mend broken neckpieces; melt small ornaments to make something new and at times wedding jewellery. “I have been here since 1973 after my father’s death,” says Baladasan. Sitting in the shop named after his father, Baladasan says, his father did not want him to take up this profession, hence never taught him the trade. “My father used to say however sincere you are in this job, since you work with gold, people never trust you completely. They tend to think that they will be cheated. But I was confident and I have had the trust of my people,” he says.
At a time when ornament making is more off the machine, Baladasan’s world is laced with the hand-made. He asserts jewellery-making can still be a craft that survives on the skills of the hand. To prove his point, he pulls out a neckpiece from the chest with intricate, immaculate designs done by hand. “People do not believe it is hand-made,” he smiles. “Brands and advertisement convince you that all is done on the machine,” he adds. “Melting, solidifying, cutting, measuring, welding, filing, finishing is done here manually. Only electroplating — final polishing — is done outside on machines,” he says.
Baladasan is quite a teacher, having taught many the craft. He demonstrates placing a small leaf-patterned ear stud on a plank close to a wax lamp and he blows through a rod curved at the tip. As it spews out smoke, the flat piece of gold coils into the size of a small round pill. “We weld using this technique. Often we melt on the pot,” he says, pointing to large jar filled with paddy and husk and smudged by ash and charcoal in the middle. He takes out other tools, needles with ball-shaped holders, rods big and small, all used for carving designs on gold.
Baladasan began without training. But many, like his uncle and his father’s workers, showed the way. Over the past 40 years, rules and business have changed. “Before the 916 age, the ratio was one gram copper for 10 grams gold. If copper is up by a fraction, the product becomes impure. But the products were sturdy and did not break fast,” says Baladasan. “For a long time now, we have been doing 916 gold.”
Though people usually come with small work, he does wedding jewellery too. “I do wedding jewellery when people come with an order. They would want a specific design and a big shop will take time. I am done in 4-5 days,” he says. The social pressure a wedding brings on too has not missed him. “Earlier, even when there were 6-7 girls in a family, parents never went bankrupt marrying them off. They would be given 10-15 sovereigns of gold and the girls also got a share in the family property after the parents’ death. Now, even if there is just a girl in the family, one sees the parents selling their house after the wedding. It is about giving 50 sovereigns more than your neighbour. Sitting here I have seen the pain of many people, have shared their grief and even lent a helping hand.”
Over the years, business for this 58-year-old has been about keeping it going. What was once a workplace employing 12 has three today apart from Baladasan and his brother. “We only have that much work.” “Some times I do think about carrying on. I too have aches and pains. But the next morning, I am up and ready to come. When I reach, there would be someone waiting. Even if there is one customer a day, it may mean work for a week,” says Baladasan.
A weekly column on the men and women who make Kozhikode what it is.