Why Punjabi Thatheras Still Make Brass, Copper Vessels in a Dying Profession

Loud clanging sounds emanate from the small town of Jandiala Guru, Amritsar, Punjab. Not surprising, since Jandiala Guru is home to a community of Thatheras. These artisans, who make brass, copper and kansa utensils by hand, are busy hammering copper and brass sheets into vessels like prayer gongs or chaya patras (reflection bowls), which are used by the bride and groom to capture each other’s reflection in oil, among others.

A part of the village’s legacy, the Thatheras, who once thrived in a post-Partition era, have now dwindled in numbers. Earnings from their outdated and unprofitable craft would not even allow for two meals a day, and the nation-wide lockdown due to the Coronavirus have only added to their woes.

However, long before the emergence of the virus, the craftsmen saw their earnings collapse, which further reduced the number of families involved in the occupation “from 500 to 30”.

It is only in recent years that these artisans have seen their income increase “exponentially by 600%” all thanks to the students of Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) and Enactus, an international non-profit organisation.

To preserve the karigars in the craft sector, a team of 50 people conceptualised Project Virasat, an umbrella initiative to revive dying artforms in the country.

Punjab Thatheras
A dimly-lit workshop of Thatheras in Jandiala Guru, Punjab.

Marked by their ‘thak thak sound’

“What differentiates the thathiar craft from others making copper utensils is the ‘thak thak’ sound that comes from the hammering of the vessels. The dotted designs on the vessels are unique to the thathera craft,” says Agrin Jain, a student of SRCC, who is one of the directors of Project Virasat.

The project was sanctioned in May 2018 after UNESCO mentioned the Thatheras in their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“Two years ago, we identified that the thathiyar craft was on the verge of extinction. That’s when we researched more about the craft and found a lot of problems. The artisans faced oppression by middlemen, competition from stainless steel and aluminum utensils, and a sharp decline in demand for their products over the years,” adds Taruni Singhal, another director of the project.

Additionally, even though the food cooked in brass vessels is full of flavour, they’re difficult to maintain and clean.

“We started working with just two Thatheras and today support 42,” 19-year-old Taruni shares.

Project Virasat helped set up the Punjabi Thathera Art Legacy (P-TAL) a self-help group for Thatheras, which has its own website and is also listed across various e-commerce sites like Amazon.

Catering to the modern palate

“To keep up with the contemporary market we converted a traditional Indian parat bowl into a parat clock and a matka into a water dispenser,” Taruni says and adds, “With the help of our designer we designed various products like tea sets, frustum vases, spice box, dinner set, planters etc.”

With the addition of 65 new designs to their portfolio, P-TAL’s products range anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 8000.

The Thatheras are introduced to this craft at a very young age. After spending over two decades in this profession, Mandeep Kumar, 34, says, “We now have more intricate designs on our products instead of the outdated ones.”

Punjab Thatheras
Mandeep Kumar learnt the Thathera art at a young age.

Completing almost a year with Virasat, Mandeep says his profit margin “increased from Rs 2,500 to nearly Rs 20,000 per month”. Speaking of his slender profit margins, he adds, “We sell our products, which sometimes weigh 80-90 kgs, by weight. For brass vessels weighing 2.5 kgs, the product cost is about Rs 450 and our profit is just Rs 100. I get orders worth Rs 60,000 but since the cost of production is so high, I only make a Rs18,000-20,000 profit.”

As the products are handmade, the craftsmen tell The Better India that the weight of the product does not remain constant. If the cost per product is fixed, then the Thatheras might lose out due to increased cost, in case the weight of the product increases during its manufacturing.

The making of

To make these traditional utensils, scraps of brass and copper are first melted in a large underground furnace. Molten metal is then lifted out in iron molds and allowed to cool. The metal nuggets are then rolled into flat plates using a hand roller.

However, over the years, to streamline the process of production, the Thatheras have stopped the melting of metals at home. “The brass and copper sheets are bought by the Project Virasat team from Jagadhri, Haryana, along with other raw materials and provided to the craftsmen. They cut these sheets into different dimensions, according to the requirements of the product, hammer them out and then roll them using their traditional rollers. They buff the finished products using sandpaper,” 20-year-old Agrin shares.

Often, after the hammering process, two metal plates need to be welded together to form pots, which could increase its net weight.

‘Torchbearer of legacy’

But even with their slender profit margins, the Thatheras are not keen on leaving their legacy behind. “Our earnings were very less when we sold our products in the local market in Amritsar. I used to barely make Rs 2,000-3,000 a month, which wouldn’t even cover my cost,” begins 24-year-old Ashu Kumar.

Learning the craft of Thatheras at the tender age of 12, he quit his education after 10th standard to help out in the family business. “My grandfather taught my father who taught me the art of Thatheras,” he says and adds, “Initially, we made old products like big pots, patelis, cookers, etc. But now, with help from Project Virasat, we are able to cater to modern demands. I get 20 orders for different products like tea sets, kettles and watches from which I earn a profit of Rs 8,000-9,000.”

Speaking about carrying forward the legacy, Mandeep sums up the discussion best, “The responsibility to carry on the legacy of my father made me leave my sales job and practice this craft, and faith in P-TAL and team Virasat helped me excel at it. The satisfaction I get from hammering every piece of brass/copper, seeing my father’s heart filled with pride and the eyes of the people shining when they use our products, is more than what I would have got by doing anything else. This has given me an identity of my own, the identity of being a torchbearer of legacy.”

But what about the high cost of production and low profit margins? Mandeep shares, “I will choose having only one meal a day and keeping my identity intact rather than having a stomach full everyday and being just another person in the crowd.”

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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