India: Covid-19 killing bidriware sales and leaving artisans in the lurch
Most of the bidriware artisans, who operate their own business, boast the legacy of their forefathers.
The virulence of Covid-19 has dealt a severe blow to the bidriware artisans of Bidar in north Karnataka. The famous, exquisite black metal craft with silver inlay work from Bidar, which brings these artisans a sizeable revenue is now desperately seeking buyers, leaving around 180 artisans in the fort city high and dry. They however, have not lost hope, and believe that their creativity and resilience would see them through these dark times.
Mohammed Saleemuddin, a well-known face in the bidriware sector, laments that of the numerous artisans he hired before the pandemic, only a handful could be offered jobs as demand had plummeted to a new low. Presenting a grim picture of the bidriware industry, Saleemuddin says that with negligible tourist inflow coupled with very low export orders, this royal handicraft may not survive beyond another 15 years if efforts are not put in to revive the craft.
Most of the bidriware artisans, who operate their own business, boast the legacy of their forefathers. They have been craftsmen for generations. Saleemuddin says these artisans have been demanding a museum to exhibit their products as tourists flock in droves to the historical city of Bidar known for its historical fort. This old city has other attractions as well — Madrasa Mahmud Gawan, a university of repute of the 15th Century; Rangin Mahal (coloured palace); a complex housing the Lal Bagh; the Solah Khamb Mosque built by Qubli Sultan in 1423, among others.
According to Saleemuddin, a sales counter outside the museum would benefit the craftsmen.
“The courage and the indomitable spirit of our artisans keep us from despair despite the challenges confronting us as a result of pandemic,” said Abdul Basit, owner-artisan, who is the son of M.A. Rauf, a name to reckon with in bidriware. He seemed optimistic. “Yes, the lockdown has definitely affected bidriware craft, but of late, business has been slowly picking up; we have started receiving some orders for office and home décor items.”
Obaidullah Khan, who is into marketing of bidriware, however, disagrees. “With tourist footfall at an all-time low, and drastic drop in exports, the pandemic has broken our backs. Expos and exhibitions which offer a good platform to showcase and sell our products are either not happening or it is not that easy to participate because of Covid restrictions. Also, before the pandemic set in, the government used to buy our craftworks in substantial quantities to gift them to visiting dignitaries and guests, but that is not happening now. We have been churning out craftworks, but they remain dead stock. We only hope the government would give us the required push by assisting us in promoting and marketing our products.”
The online sale website, bidrihandicrft.com, is an initiative that supports these artisans. “We are eager to help this sector recover from the impact of Covid-19,” Obaidullah said.
The fact that around 700 artisans were engaged in the production and trade of this elegant craftwork some years ago, but only about 180 of them are continuing to pursue this trade now, underlines the fact that this craft is on the wane.
Mohammed Saeed Khaja Mia, president of Bidri Association, which works for the welfare of these artisans, believes that certain urgent steps are necessary to preserve this handicraft and the culture it represents.
He laments that artisans, who have not had work during the pandemic, are looking for other avenues of work, resulting in shortage of trained hands. “Many senior artisans, who have been unable to work owing to old age, or have died, are seldom being replaced, leaving a big gap in the production process due to non-availability of craftsmen. Unless the government intervenes by providing loans, and training artisans, bidriware production will slowly die out,” he said.
Asked about e-commerce business opportunities in this sector, Mohammed Saeed said: “Only a few have courted the e-commerce platforms to survive the pandemic. A majority of them do not have the skill required for e-commerce selling.”
Mohammed Saeed added that the assurance given by the Karnataka Minorities Development Corporation Ltd that 133 artisans in this sector would be provided loans, had not materialised yet and they are waiting for the good news.
Mohammed Saeed added: “Bidar’s young artisans must be made to understand that working in this traditional craft is a matter of national pride. They must be encouraged to learn, practice and carry forward the skills imparted by their forefathers. We again urge the district authorities and other agencies to come forward and help us in this time of crisis.”
Support from government agencies
To promote this art form, it is important that the district administration and other government agencies render them support.
Speaking to Khaleej Times, Keerthana H.S., IAS probationer at Deputy Commissioner’s office, Bidar, said: “We have many agencies supporting Bidri art. Artisans are provided raw materials such as silver and zinc at 50 per cent subsidised rate by the Cauvery Emporium. Every month each artisan used to get a purchase order worth approximately five to six thousand rupees from Cauvery Emporium, but that is not happening now because of the pandemic. The Bidri Colony that has an occupancy capacity of about 170 houses, was developed in order to provide these artisans housing at subsidised rates. Also lending support to them is the Visvesvaraya Trade Promotion Centre, where they ensure that Bidri artisans get opportunities to participate in trade events, exhibitions and promotional programmes such as the tribal haat (market) held all over the country.”
“Bidriware products are given away as mementos to various achievers and winners of governmental programmes. That benefits these artisans. But because of pandemic, such programmes are not taking place as frequently as they used to,” she added.
When asked whether the administration had any concrete plans to promote and revive the craft, Keerthana, exuding optimism, said: “Yes, there are many programmes at various stages of execution. We have sent a proposal to Karnataka Skill Development Corporation for training and upgrading the skill of these artisans; we have approached the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises with a proposal regarding the Bidri artisans cluster; we are in discussion with the Archaeological Survey of India for identification of land inside the fort to put up a Bidri studio; a proposal has been sent to the Minorities Department for a detailed project report on the Bidri artisans cluster; the district administration is also looking forward to create point of sales at airports.”
In order to give the craft sector, the much-needed stimulus, a few artisans from Bidar showcased their bidriware in the Dastkar Bazaar held at Bengaluru from 1st to 7th September, 2021. It is an initiative to revive the livelihood of craftspeople across India affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bidriware: Origin and techniques
The bidri craftwork is believed to have had its origin in Persia, and was brought to India in the late 14th century. These works of astonishing craftsmanship that uses damascene techniques, standout as a masterpiece of intricate inlay of workmanship.
Known for its elegant design and craftsmanship, the bidri craftworks go through 36 stages during which pure silver designs are engraved onto objects made of an alloy of zinc, copper, earth and non-ferrous metals. These objects are then dipped into a unique concoction prepared using soil acquired exclusively from the Bidar Fort, which oxidises the alloy into a lustrous black shade. The final products are a feast for the eyes and senses. Bidri craftworks have, over decades, been exhibited in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Boston Museum, USA, as part of exhibitions such as the Festival of India. In the beginning, Bidriware were made only for nawabs and noblemen, and were sought by connoisseurs and collectors. It has today attained global fame.
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