TRADITIONAL JEWELLERY Life & Style

Silver anklets: Tinkling jewels that make Salem shine

Silver anklets have remained a standard part of women’s jewellery collections for ages in Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: LAKSHMI NARAYANAN E

On a muggy afternoon, men in vests and lungis are busy at work at this nameless unit behind the Pallapatti Lake in Salem, assembling an ornament that the South Indian city has been famous for, for nearly a century: the silver kolusu or anklet.

Artisans lay out varying lengths of silver wire that has already been cast in the ‘Khusbhoo’ pattern (named, like the idli, after the actress when she was at the peak of her popularity in the 1980s) and manually fix die-cut embellishments like flowers and enamel accents in a painstakingly slow process. Made of silver alloyed with copper, these ornaments come with tinkling bells (salangai) attached.

Mud from the road outside has been mixed with water to create a paste that is packed into iron trays, forming a non-reactive base that keeps all the tiny parts of the anklet from dislodging. Once done, the tray is sent to another worker who solders the pieces on each anklet, until it is ready for the next process of cleaning and polishing.

“There are 30 steps to making an anklet, and each one goes to at least 10 places before it returns to the unit for the finishing stage,” says V Suresh, who has been manufacturing the ornaments with his elder brother for the past 15 years in Salem. “One of the unique features about the Salem anklet is that except for a few stages, most of the manufacturing is still done by hand,” he adds.

In the inner chambers of his home-cum-office, Suresh keeps rods of kachcha silver, made of melted down anklets that will be mixed with pure silver to manufacture a new batch of ornaments. Plastic bags of rasagolla (silver globules), screws and other accessories fill the small steel cupboard. With the recent easing of the lockdown, production is almost back to normal in this family-run business.

Artisans assembling silver anklets at a home-based workshop in Periyayeri area in Salem in Tamil Nadu.

Artisans assembling silver anklets at a home-based workshop in Periyayeri area in Salem in Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: LAKSHMI NARAYANAN E

Historic links

Suresh is part of a cottage industry that is thought to employ up to 10 lakh people in and around the city. With nearly 60% of the anklets sold across India reportedly from Salem, the ornament has made the city one among the leading manufucturing hubs in India.

In areas of the city like Shevapet and Sivathapuram, it is possible to see anklets in different stages of manufacture laid out in long lines, twinkling in the sunlight. Despite this, Salem’s kolusu industry does not have a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for its products.

A lack of supportive documentation to prove the antiquity and uniqueness of the business in Salem is the main cause, say local history enthusiasts and jewellery industry players.

“According to our research, silver anklet production in Salem has been supported by a community of traders who migrated from Saurashtra. They were initially into textiles, but when the industry became shaky due to restrictions imposed by the British, they moved into making silver anklets,” says A Anand Kumar, managing partner, ANS Guptha and Sons, a leading jeweller in the city.

This demographic has changed in recent decades to include skilled artisans and sellers from a multicultural background. Anand Kumar is also a part of the local chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and has been spearheading an initiative to get a GI tag for the Salem kolusu.

In 2019, the brand’s ANS Dhivyam showroom got 20 anklet makers in the city to create a 127-feet long anklet, weighing five and a half kilograms and featuring five of Salem’s most popular patterns, within a month, for a special public display.

“We did this mainly to give some pride to the artisans who are always in the shadows, compared to the retailers,” says Anand Kumar. “Even when you take images and statuary of 200 years ago, you will find the anklet, which was called the kaapu then. It may be in a slightly different form, but it would be a key way to identify the cultural and ethnic origins of a woman,” he adds.

Among Salem’s unique designs is the thala kolusu, made for infants. The silver wire is wound in such a way that it loosens as the child grows, and can be used for up to four years.

Silver anklets once used to be an indicator of the wearer’s ethnicity.

Silver anklets once used to be an indicator of the wearer’s ethnicity.   | Photo Credit: LAKSHMI NARAYANAN E

Impact of technology

Technology and competition from mechanised production have affected Salem’s anklet industry in myriad ways.

While social media has facilitated nationwide trade, a growing number of people are making ‘true copies’ of the original product.

“North Indian manufacturers are putting up replicas of our designs on their Facebook pages, claiming it to be their product. A GI tag will help prevent this plagiarism,” says C Srianandarajan, secretary of Salem District Kolusu Manufacturers Kaivinai Sangam.

The industry body, which has 300 anklet manufacturers on its rolls, hopes to get this heritage jewel given due recognition.

“This is an industry that defines our city. We should do more to honour this ornament that has given Salem so much,” says Srianandarajan.

An artisan soldering silver anklets at a home-based workshop in Periyayeri area in Salem in Tamil Nadu.

An artisan soldering silver anklets at a home-based workshop in Periyayeri area in Salem in Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: LAKSHMI NARAYANAN E


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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 3:57:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/salems-handmade-silver-anklets-industry-awaits-geographical-indication-tag/article36225289.ece

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