Timeless traditions: Thathera metal craft

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Timeless traditions: Thathera metal craft

Tuesday, 03 October 2023 | Sukhdev Singh

Timeless traditions: Thathera metal craft

Thathera metal craft has been on the UNESCO list for almost a decade now, but the struggle of the artisans making these utensils continues

Despite the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage inscription of the 'Thathera' craft of Jndiala Guru since 2014, the financial and social condition of the craftsmen has not improved much. Recognising the cultural heritage worth of the ‘thathera’ metal craft in Jnadiala Guru, in its 9th session held in Paris in 2014, UNESCO ‘Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage’ decided to inscribe the craft on its list. This is the first metal craft from India to find a place in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Thus, not only Punjab but India should be proud of it. “But just the pride cannot feed the craftsmen and keep the craft vibrant”, says a craftsman seeking anonymity. S Hardev Singh of the ‘Thatera’ community says, “The younger generation is opting out of this family profession because it neither earns money nor respect. 

Although Ayurveda recognises the advantages of eating in copper, bronze and brass utensils, the ‘use and throw’ cheaper alternatives are pushing it out of use”. Instead of popular cosmetic measures, the government should take concrete steps of waiving taxes and continuing the old quota system of issuing scrap as the raw material directly and only to the working craftsmen to reduce the cost and prices of objects to face the competition. 

Further, it can help market the products as art pieces and utilitarian objects. The government can check the entry of middlemen who buy raw materials from the Indian Army on auction and then distribute them among the craftsmen to produce objects for them at low labour rates. “In the current practice, a craftsman has no claim of ownership of the product and after the day-long hard work earns only 500-600 a day”, a craftsman quips. He asks, “Is this the value of skill or the wage of labour? How would my son like to pursue this profession”? Recently, the Punjab government has declared the Thathera Bazar a Heritage street and built a gate at the street entry symbolising the value of the craft, but has neither waived off its share in GST nor taken any serious steps to help them improve their condition.

The question is how the gate and the heritage street status would help if there were no craftsmen in the street. The UNESCO recognition has, of course, created some hype in the media. Some agencies have succeeded in getting the study projects sanctioned adding to their profiles and justifying their jobs but have not advocated the case forcefully enough to deliver at the ground. Some art and craft dealers have tried to reap benefits by tagging the products with UNESCO recognition to sell them at premium prices while the craftsmen continue to work as labourers at low rates. This is where the shoe pinches and the government should step in to save the craft, the craftsmen and the cultural heritage of the state.

The ‘Thathera’ craft is practised at several other places in India but the uniqueness of the craftsmen in Jandiala Guru is their continuance as a community to practice the family tradition of handmade copper and brass utensils. The ten to twelve-generation tradition of ‘Thateras’ in Jandiala Guru and their craft is a journey of place and people in and through time. The knowledge systems transmitted from generation to generation and the continued relevance of their products to the people make the craftsmanship a ‘living tradition’, fulfilling the three-tier criterion of ‘people, place and time’ to identify the craft as the Cultural Heritage.

According to the Amritsar District Gazetteer of 1883, “Besides the city [Amritsar]...the only trade centre worthy of notice is the town of Jandiala, which is known for its manufacture of brass and copper vessels in which it has a brisk export trade”(p.117). 

If so, the trade perfected worthy of export must have started during the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh or before. While the utensils are tangible objects, traditional knowledge, skills and art are intangible. Both the craft and its knowledge conventions have been recognised in the UNESCO inscription.

The craftsmen of Jandiala Guru use the conventional knowledge and skills of ‘forging’ instead of ‘casting’ metal to shape it as a utensil. Using the method of forging, they hammer the metal plates with the help of a mallet. After heating the plates in a small hand-driven furnace, they consistently thump and beat a plate to make it malleable and ductile. Then the parts of a utensil are made by cutting, heating and curving the metal sheet; then these parts are joined with each other. There are five methods for joining of metals: soldering, brazing, flux, riveting and welding. The Thateras of Jandiala Guru use brazing and riveting. Brazing is a process of joining two or more metals by pouring a molten filler metal into the joint. The utensils made from the metal sheets are then cleaned with diluted acid and scrubbed with tamarind water and sand. The whole process of polishing is carried out with hands and feet. This final process brings out the rich texture and colour of the metal. 

Finally, the utensils are ornamented with hand-engraved designs with patterns of delicate dents of small size and round shapes looking like small stars. Utensils are art objects “produced not only for their use but also for their beauty possessing an artistic image which expresses their function”.

Thus the contribution of craftsmen to the development of culture and civilization, on the one hand, and to the fulfilment of utilitarian and aesthetic needs, on the other, has been great in human history. Eating and cooking in the mud, copper, brass and bronze utensils is good for health and taste. The science of Ayurveda in India recognizes the relevance of these metals for health. The references to Bronze for health healing can be found in several tracts like Ashtanga Samgraha/ Hridaya, Rajtarangini and Bhavprakasha. In contrast with glass, plastic and steel, bronze shows nil microbial presence one hour after being washed in hot water.

Copper is said to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. It helps prevent cell damage and slow ageing due to its antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties. As copper, which is well known as a biocide, is the major content in alloy metal of brasses, utensils made from brass have the beneficial effect of restricting the growth of microorganisms. While the craftsmen must be acknowledged as educated and skilled worthy of social respect and honour; their craft must be supported and promoted as our precious cultural heritage.

(The writer is a retired professor from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar; views are personal)

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