[By Usha Raman]
The touristic imagination of Hyderabad city is marked by a few dominant images: the aromatic and spicy biryani, the 15th century structure known as Charminar, the historic pearl trade, and the stone-studded bangles of Laad Bazaar. Even as many visitors to the city stop on their way to the airport to pick up a “flight pack” of the famous biryani, they might also have, nestled within their suitcases, a box of what poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu called those “rainbow tinted circles of light”.
Laad Bazaar, or Chudi (bangle) Bazaar, a narrow street snaking westward from Charminar in the old city of Hyderabad, is lined with hundreds of shops that sell their signature ware—lacquer bangles closely embedded with glass and semi-precious stones. Kurta-clad men stand at store fronts shouting invitations to passers-by to take a look at the many varieties they stock, ranging in price from under Rs 100 to Rs 5000 (around USD 1.50 to 70) for a set. Customers—mostly women—throng the shops, leaning over counters to point to what they want, haggling over prices and quickly comparing what’s on offer at the next store. But on the other side of the counter, women are mostly absent.
The bangle trade in Hyderabad is estimated to employ nearly 15,000 people, with around 4000 engaged in the craft of bangle making. Hyderabadi bangles are exported across India as well as globally, with the daily local trade estimated at Rs 300,000 (USD 4100). Women represent 60% of the artisanal workforce. In what is largely a family business, men make the basic structure of the bangle—welding the metal frame, making the lacquer and pressing it into the frames—while the women embed the stones. It’s a painstaking process, involving long hours bent over the work surface handling tiny stones, getting the intricate designs just right. The first part of the process—making the frame—is done in what are essentially small workshops, known as “kharkhanas”, while the second is done by the women inside their homes.
This arrangement suits the social and cultural geography of the old city perfectly, where women are discouraged from entering public spaces. Hyderabad’s old city has in some sense been “left behind” by development, its Muslim-majority population having suffered for long from poor access to education and civic amenities, and in previous decades experienced violent communal tensions. Women in this area therefore may be seen as doubly marginalized, by gender and religion. A 2014 unpublished report by Tanay Agrawal commissioned by the NGO Shaheen Women’s Welfare and Resource Organization (and made available to FemLab.Co by Shaheen), revealed that many of the women working in the bangle trade had very little or no schooling, and found this a conducive occupation as it allowed them to work within the boundaries of what was permitted by the community. In most cases, the women are part of a small family enterprise, but some also receive work from larger kharkhanas. Jameela Nishat, founder and director of Shaheen, tells me that they are paid anywhere from Rs 150 to 200 (USD 2 to 3) a day for their work (a newspaper report quantifies this as Rs 100 [USD 1.20] for a set of 14 bangles).
Based on his interviews with around 150 women from the old city, Agrawal notes that the women have no knowledge of the market process and rarely interact directly with the intermediaries, including those running larger kharkhanas, retailers, wholesale buyers, and independent agents who coordinate between the market and the makers. While women may work in small family groups, they do not interact with others in the trade.
Jameela Nishat notes that one of their objectives has been to collectivize women who work in various artisanal sectors in the old city, primarily bangle making, incense-stick rolling, and embroidery (the local craft known as zardozi). Their work has focused on educating the women about their legal rights, giving them a shared safe space within which they can talk about their lives and their challenges, and exploring ways to overcome these. “We’ve started a Mahila Mazdoor Sangham (women workers’ collective),” she says, “But it’s a collective with no money, and no bank account!” Still, the very sense of being part of a craft community—something that had been missing given the domestic location of their work—had given the women a sense of identity, and the space to also articulate more wide-ranging concerns. These include issues of access to education, occupational health and domestic violence—issues that were also reported in a study by social historian Rekha Pande, who found that the long working hours (9-10 hours a day) in poorly lit, cramped conditions led to chronic backache, migraines and eye strain.
Nishat also tells me about one young woman who escaped from a “sheikh marriage” (the practice of ‘selling’ young women as brides to older men from the Gulf region) and with the Shaheen’s support, was able to set up her own bangle kharkhana, and promises to take me there once we are past the pandemic restrictions.
The bangle trade was also affected adversely by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown, which closed the bazaars for several months. A devastating flood in August 2020 inundated several of the kharkhanas and cost many women their livelihoods. Nishat says the area is still recovering from these shocks, and it was relief efforts by Shaheen and other NGOs, along with some government aid, that has helped the community stay afloat.
Becoming part of an artisanal community, recognizing that concerns are shared, and identifying as women who have valuable skills, might be the first steps towards bringing some glitter back into the lives of the bangle makers. Today, the bangle trade is seen as a boutique activity that is attracting young, university-educated entrepreneurs who want to streamline the supply chain and reach new markets. Organizations like SEWA in Gujarat have productively engaged with women artisans to not only expand markets but ensure fair compensation and social security, apart from fostering a strong sense of shared identity. Shaheen is also working to build digital literacy among the women who are part of their collective, allowing for lateral communication, and in time, possibly open up ways to reaching the market directly. There is a slow but growing market for ethically produced jewelry and an interest in heritage crafts, sustained by a committed minority, and the challenge is for these women to connect with such markets—and the digital could be the pathway to that.
Along with the kind of women’s entrepreneurship that Jameela Nishat recounts—these might be opportunities for collectivized women to demand better wages and some social security—and more important, bring recognition to their role in crafting those “rainbow tinted circles of light”.