Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Lost to change

There was this story on NPR the other day about Egypt, with mention of an old-styled blacksmith, and how his business is being threatened by cheap factory-made imports:

Nasser al-Hamoud, a blacksmith, works from inside an old mud-brick building on a twisting, narrow street in Al Qasr, a village at the northern end of the Dakhla Oasis. At his shop, a giant heaving bellows is the centerpiece of what resembles a medieval blacksmith's forge.

Hamoud explains that business is uncertain these days. He says farm tools are his bread and butter, but lately, cheap imports from China have flooded the market. He scornfully holds up a thin, Chinese-made shovel blade, and then hefts the weightier, more costly hand-forged version.

The Luddite in me gently weeps when I read something like this. Reminds me of the single blacksmith in Kotda, my home for a couple years alma mater. The blacksmith's shop, no bigger than the size of a small bedroom, is placed in the square where most of the village's businesses are located. The actual setup is not as romantic as al-Hamoud's - there is no giant heaving bellows, instead a dull electric air compressor does the same job.

To compare the two is not to suggest that the Kotda blacksmith's business is uncertain like the one in Al Qasr. The former's business is not based on manufacturing but on fixing agricultural implements, a fairly dependable line of work. One interesting seasonal pattern to the Kotda blacksmith's work is the ritualistic fixing/sharpening of plows and sickles right before monsoon agriculture starts (farming in the 200+ villages that depend on Kotda for such services is done manually for the most part). Like clockwork, the first rain shower brings in a flood of customers to the blacksmith, wielding all kinds of agricultural implements.

It was remarkable to see that, much like with many other aspects of the business of life, the more diligent farmers would get their blacksmithy done before the monsoon, higher rates, and long waiting times kicked in; the average ones would show up in a critical mass on cue from the first shower; and the subprime farmers would straggle in last at the risk of messing up their timing of the monsoon, which is a roll of dice in the best of circumstances, and having an unsuccessful crop.

* * * * *

Talking about seasonal rituals in Kotda, another one which provided much amusement to outsiders like me was the annual relicensing of guns. A lot of families in the Kotda area own guns (a fact historically corroborated by item no. 3 here, I speculate), the licenses for which have to be renewed every year. On a certain predetermined date, thousands of gun-bearing villagers descend on the tehsildar's office in Kotda to get theirs renewed. Even in normal circumstances, Kotda has the feel of a rather volatile border town; license-renewal day would much accentuate that character.

It deserves to be said the even though violence (of many kinds - land disputes, domestic, robberies etc; like this) is common in Kotda, the use of guns in anger is almost unheard of. I reason that this has something to do with the fact that most of the aforementioned guns are old-fashioned muzzle-loaders, and an axe is probably more useful when a weapon is handily needed. Besides (illegal) hunting, the guns are mostly just a ornament for men during weddings and such.

* * * * *

Back to the subject of blacksmithy, one particularly interesting group of tradespeople in the area are the 'gadia luhars' (literally, blacksmiths in carts), a nomadic community of blacksmiths who live in Rajasthan (and possibly elsewhere too). These blacksmiths travel village to village with their entire families and households on wheels (or loaded on donkeys), setting up shop by the roadside in the proximity of the main square or business area, doing the finer blacksmithy that their lighter mobile equipment offers.

The easily distinguishable hand-forged cooking utensils made by the gadia luhars are fading into obscurity at the same rate as the gadia luhars themselves. While the NPR story above makes "Chinese-made" sound villianish for driving al-Hamoud out of work, the fact is that factory-produced metalwork, foreign or local, has annulled the practicality of hand-forged stuff universally, as with the gadia luhars' handiwork.

An anectode to prove the point: While travelling through the town of Gogunda once, I purchased a hand-crafted ladle from a gadia luhar for ten or fifteen rupees; at 18 inches long and almost half a kilo, it was quite a piece of work. Back home in Kotda, my purchase provided much amusement to my roommates, who would never have bought one themselves. The key fact in the story is that my roommates belonged to remote tribal villages themselves, illustrating the penetration of factory-made goods, Chinese or otherwise.

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