Bell metal craftsmen numbers shrink, threatening existence of a skilled job

Sivanarayanan Moosari sits at a work shed attached to his house, perfecting a tiny wax model of a nilavilakku (traditional lamp). In a few days, the expert craftsman will fashion a bell metal lamp from the wax model and it will form part of an ashtamangalya set, a group of eight religious articles considered auspicious by Hindu families of Kerala.

Sivanarayanan, from Desamangalam near Shoranur, is a bell metal craftsman, one of the few in the State who still uses traditional methods to create bell metal vessels, lamps, door locks, idols and religious articles. He belongs to the Moosari community, which traditionally practiced the craft, but has now moved on to other work.

“I have six siblings. All of them have learnt this craft just as I have, but none of them work with bell metal now,” says 45-year-old Sivanarayanan. The Moosari community fell upon hard times after technology took the crafting of vessels and lamps away from the small work sheds of craftsmen to large factories. Bell metal gave way to moulded steel, aluminum and brass articles. With prospects looking dim, the Moosari community migrated to other professions for livelihood and their craft is on the verge of extinction.

“My work is time-consuming. It takes me three-and-a-half days to finish an ashtamangalya set. It may take two or three months to make an ornate manichithrathazu (traditional Kerala-style door lock) or a temple idol,” says Sivanarayanan. The same work is completed in a factory in minutes. But traditional craftsmen say their work is far superior to the products churned out in factories. Whereas a Moosari crafts wax models and moulds from scratch for each item he makes, factories use fixed moulds for their products.

“The vessel I make will be smooth and seamless. Factory-made vessels have grooves that will cut your hand,” says Sreedharan Moosari from Thrissur. “There are factories in Moradabad and Aligarh that make plenty of manichithrathazhu, nilavilakku, and other items. But my work takes a lot of patience and skill. That’s why people come asking for traditional work,” he says.

Modern factories also use other materials that make the end product cheaper. Unlike these materials, bell metal retains its colour and quality far longer.

Sivanarayanan, however, is concerned that his age-old craft may die out soon unless is something is done to revive it. Making a manichathrathazhu the traditional way is a lengthy process that requires a lot of skill. “When I get an order for an item, I first have to visualize how the finished product will look. If the item is a temple idol, an oracle’s anklet or sword, or other religious articles, I have to follow special rites while I work,” he says. With no schematic diagrams for his aid, the Moosari makes an exact replica of the final product in wax. This wax model is fortified with mud. Around the model, the craftsman builds a clay figure that will form the mould. The metal is heated in a mud crucible called the moosha, from which the ‘Moosari’ gets his name. When the molten metal is poured into the clay structure, the wax melts and flows out, leaving a perfect mould for the hot metal. Once the metal cools, the clay is broken and the completed metal article is polished. The process is time-consuming.

As Sivanarayanan potters about his work shed, his five-year-old daughter Meenakshi sits next to him, watching him work in between her games. She has learnt something of her father’s craft by watching him work, just as Narayanan learnt from his father.

Low wages, however, have driven away the younger generation from taking up bell metal work as a profession. “I have three boys. They used to help me at work earlier. Now they have moved on to other work,” says Sreedharan, now 68. While even manual labour can get a person Rs.700 a day, bell metal work cannot fetch more than Rs.500.

Sivanarayanan, however, is trying his best to pass on his technique to the young. He takes classes in three schools, teaching children to make small figures out of clay and kindling their interest in bell metal craft. His three children, aged 15, 11 and five, have also won prizes at school for clay modelling. It is doubtful, however, whether they will take up his profession when they grow up. “Tradition cannot feed people,” says Sivanarayanan.