Friday, 13 June 2014

The Banyan Tree, Kansaris and Raja Parasuram

A kansa cup under manufacture.

On the empty road from Jamalpur town to Islampur the wind is telling of liberation. In that open country the crop fields speak of struggle and overcoming. Three on a Honda: a little lawlessness, technically, but like everybody else we get by and make do. It’s an enduring landscape that inspires. Let Bangladesh tell its own story.

Of the banyan tree, the bat gach of Battala, there is all the complexity of the movement of the market that has grown up alongside root and branch. That tree could’ve embarked upon a lengthy, winding monologue – does it remember from its sapling youth when Jamalpur was called Singhjani? Can it recall the arrival of the sufi saint, Shah Jamal, reportedly a younger brother of Sylhet’s Shah Jalal, to spread the word of Islam and bequeath to the broader area a newer name? Such a history is at least spoken of.

There have been kansa artisans at work in Islampur for 1000 years.
Like in any small Bangladeshi community everybody seems to know everybody in Islampur and the banyan, centre stage in the middle of its self-created roundabout, sees all. The tree hears the disputes, gossip, discussions and confidences. It knows that tea comes with ceramic saucer and welcoming words for visitors. And it remembers a once thriving kansa or bell metal industry.

Of the legendary King Parasuram the banyan must also have heard. Although his capital at Bogra’s Mahasthangarh lies distant – across the Jamuna and all too distant when a king’s available transport would’ve been palanquin and boat rather than three-by-Honda; although in all likelihood he never reached Islampur the monarch is remembered there. It comes down to this: even a legendary royal has to eat.

Team work. It takes two to shape a plate.

Legend says that bell metal, that version of bronze used for making utensils in the subcontinent, first reached East Bengal from some Indian elsewhere – Assam, Odisha, Pashchimbanga – to serve at Parasuram’s court. In this current age of melamine and steel, of easy glass and ceramic, it’s a simple matter to forget that kansa cups and plates were once standard for any raja needing to make impressive devotional offerings at temples and wishing to dine in style.

A kansari shapes a musical cymbal.

From Mahasthangarh the kansa industry branched out like the banyan, so legend says, to a handful of other manufacturing centres: first to Dhaka’s Dhamrai, from there to Kagmari, Kalipur, Mogra and Charibari in Tangail, also to Chapainawabganj and to Islampur. The later British conquerors encouraged the trade; kansa still meant luxury to them.

It’s true that even a banyan mightn’t have endured since the time of Parasuram. Of Islampur’s kansa tradition, if the tree did not see the first of it, it knows at least the subsequent history. It saw – say, twenty-five years back – a thriving kansa industry employing up to 350 kansari artisans in Islampur. It heard the story of Jagat Chandra Kamakar, the local kansari whose kansa work is said to have taken first prize at a World Handicrafts Exhibition in Birmingham many years ago. Still now there are around twenty families with perhaps fifty kansaris in Islampur to carry on the ancient trade.

“For nearly one thousand years my family was in this industry,” says Ankon Karmakar, secretary of the Islampur Bell Metal Society and one of Islampur’s two principal kansa traders. “I know at least the name of Prashanna Kumar Karmakar, my ancestor from a hundred years back who did this work.”

Preparing a plate for refining.
Ankon explains the kansa recipe: about 25% tin and 75% copper. The tin ingots arrive from Malaysia and Indonesia, the copper from Malaysia and supplies are bought from the Mitford market in Old Dhaka – although mainly recycled metal is used these days.

“Kansa is healthy and hygienic,” he says, “No acid forms when it’s used and it’s attractive, nice designs are possible. But the work is laborious. It’s an inhuman job and production is low. My son will not be involved in this trade and within a decade it will be gone from Islampur, just as some years ago it disappeared from parts of Tangail.”

Indeed, up the road in Kansaripara, the labouring kansaris care little for the dining requirements of Parasuram. The workers, from both the Hindu and Muslim communities, barely have leisure time to visit the banyan tree.

Sharifuddin working on a plate.
“Many kansaris are leaving to go to Dhaka to drive rickshaws,” says Sharifuddin, 30, taking a break from beating metal. “We start at 6 a.m.,” he says, before describing the process by which mixed metal shavings are melted then poured onto a plate to cool into a metallic lump. With tools the items are then shaped, one kansari pulling a rope backwards and forwards to turn a wheel while another scrapes and pounds out a cup, plate, devotional pot, musical cymbal or other item.

“We mostly use recycled materials,” he says, “copper from the motor coils of irrigation pumps, old copper wires or old kansa wares.” The entrepreneurs provide the raw materials each morning and five labourers over ten hours can turn four kilograms of material into eight plates. At a profit of 150 taka per plate, the team can earn 1200 taka per day – 200 taka take home pay per day per kansari. “It’s not enough to live on anymore,” says Sharifuddin, “Shohijal left, Morgu Bhai left, many left...”

Kansari Md Lal Mia, 32, details the practice of adding one bhori – 11.664 grams – of silver to the mixture. “Without silver the plate is red and discoloured,” he says, “With silver you can see your face in it. It’s more glamorous.” Besides, a kansa plate without silver will react to milk to make it taste sour and the shine will fade faster. But silver costs money: without it a finished plate sells for around 2200 taka; with it the sale price is around 4500 taka.

Kansaris Sharifuddin,30, and Md. Lal Mia, 32.
Yet Ankon Karmakar maintains there is good demand for the product. The difficulties he lists for the industry’s future include a lack of capital to purchase modern equipment. A circle machine costs about one crore taka while a finishing machine is cheaper. In India the kansa manufacturers are using both, which reduces the metal required in each item by half and produces a lighter kansa ware. “If the government or an NGO does not offer assistance with logistics and loan facilities the industry has no future despite the demand. Without the equipment it’s time consuming and very hard work.”

Indeed, encouraged by the laboriousness of their trade, three years ago the kansaris of Kansaripara made a legend of their own: one night they all packed up and secretly ran away to Dhaka to ride rickshaws. After some days Islampur’s kansa entrepreneurs found them and, following a word to the rickshaw renters, persuaded them to return. “They wouldn’t rent rickshaws to us anymore,” recalls Sharifuddin.

A musical cymbal.
But 200 taka per day is not enough to run a family. Many of the kansaris have second jobs, riding rickshaws locally of an evening when they should be sleeping. In the days of their forefathers working as a kansari was beneficial but living costs have risen.

“So why do you do it?” the banyan tree might ask.

“Because our ancestors did,” is the kansaris’ answer – and they did, so legend says, from some time around the reign of Parasuram.

A plate with silver in it brings Lal Mia's face to its reflection

It's hard to make ends meet as a kansari.

The workshops of Kansaripara. Within ten years' time they may be no more!

Lively Islampur market with the banyan tree in the background.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: The Banyan, Kansaris and Raja Parasuram

Metal shavings and tools.

No comments:

Post a Comment