08 January 2017 07:17:11 IST

Disappearing act

Varanasi’s crafted glass beads are losing market to machine-made competition from China

A golden blaze fills the air from the sacred fires that burn bright as the sun sets over the Ganga. The multi-tiered diyas are held up to the holy river by men in saffron; hundreds gather on the ghats as bells clink rhythmically and handfuls of gulaal (vermilion powder) are released at intervals. All the while, the chanting of mantras over a loudspeaker pierces the air. This is the evening aarti by the Ganga in Varanasi. It’s invigorating, and in the midst of it all, Sunil, a Banarasi, offers me a glimpse of another era when he says, “My grandparents remember a simpler time, before pre-recorded prayers over players; when the energy was subtle and came from crowds who chanted after priests.”

The change is gradual, almost imperceptible. In most ways, Varanasi lives up to her tag of ‘one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth’. The past lives on in the crumbling havelis (stately mansions) en route to the ghats; in ‘Kashi’, the oft-used Vedic name of the city, and in the mundane fact that you still dodge cows and bulls on the city’s streets.

Yet, if there’s one area where the passage of time is palpable, it’s in the indigenous arts. At akhadas (place where mud-wrestling is practised), even as pehelwans (wrestlers) expound on the benefits of mud-pits — mitti that’s healing since it’s a mixture of turmeric, honey, neem, curd and earth — air-conditioned gyms are wielding their muscle-power over the city’s youth. And in bead-making, yet another ancient art is fast dying.

“Until a decade ago, I had a full-fledged bead-making unit with 125 workers. Today, I have a staff of four,” says PC Jose of Vibgyor Impex, a glass-bead maker and trader in Varanasi. As he takes me around his two-storey showroom-cum-manufacturing unit, he says, “Not too long back, we had more export orders than we could cope with, artisans working overtime, and visitors galore.” But today his business is limited to a handful of orders, which too are dwindling, thanks to the competition from the cheaper Chinese market.

The bleak times haven’t dulled his enthusiasm for the trade and he delves into the history of bead-making. The art can be traced to Bhagwanpura, an archaeological site in Haryana, and dates back to the late-Harappan period. Soon after, Kaushambi and Ahichchhatra (remnants of this ancient city have been found in present-day Bareilly district), became centres of glass-bead manufacturing in northern India. And glass beads have been recovered from many archaeological sites across Uttar Pradesh. Over centuries, entire villages picked up this trade and there were glass-beads even on cattle harnesses.

Many methods are used to create beads, but the lamp winding technique caught on in Varanasi, thanks to the effort of a Czech couple. The Henricks visited Varanasi in 1938, and established a training centre at the Banaras Hindu University. Some historians believe that this method already existed in India, but was lost with time, and only re-introduced by the Henricks. Jose leads me to his workshop to demonstrate this technique.

First, the glass is transformed into rods or sticks (Jose outsources these sticks). His artisans then melt the sticks at a small heat source, such as a fire torch. The glass is then wound around a wire. When it is still hot, the bead is shaped. Once cooled, the beads are knocked off the wire. In the ’90s, India was among the leading manufacturers of glass beads. Those from Varanasi made their way to the Czech Republic, Germany and the US among other countries.

In Jose’s showroom, one storey above, lie the finished products. I pack a basket of goodies — rings made by stringing together tiny beads, key chains made of larger beads, bangles of beads, and a few chains — that cost less than ₹1,000. And yet, I am Jose’s only customer of the day. I look around the room and there’s a haunted feel: dusty cardboard boxes marked ‘glass’ seem to be waiting for orders. And not a soul has walked in during the two hours I spend at the store.

The flood of Chinese beads has all but put Jose out of business, yet he says proudly, “the uniformity of machine-made products pales in comparison to the handmade variety, wherein no two beads are alike.” While not all Chinese beads are machine-made, Jose’s products are made by artisans who’ve been in the trade for generations. “They were born into families of bead-makers. It comes as naturally to them as breathing.”

Recently the Geographical Indication (GI) Registry of India recognised the glass beads from Varanasi, and this will help safeguard its uniqueness against Chinese imports. Perhaps this GI tag is the ray of hope that Jose, and many others like him, have been in search of. The marker empowers us, as customers, to keep a part of our history alive.

With a little help, the ancient art may survive this trying time.

(The article first appeared in BLInk.)