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There’s little shine on these bangles for those who make them

[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”.

Image credit: Sissssou / Wikimedia

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).

Image credit: Lakshmi Prabhala

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.

Image credit: Lakshmi Prabhala

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”.

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Locked down but unlocked: How online retail may preserve Bangladesh’s Jamdani heritage craft

[By Rawshon Akhter and Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

Haji Razzaque, an artisanal broker of around 50 years, shares his struggles of selling the products from Bangladesh’s Jamdani weavers, purveyors of a largely female-driven craft. He speaks of how, as a young boy, he would spend three to four hours every Friday morning at the Jamdani haat (bazaar). Right after the traditional Muslim Fazar prayer, he would head to the marketplace where over 500 Jamdani weavers, brokers, and customers from different areas would gather, some 20 km from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Since the Corona lockdown, the attendance at the market has dwindled to barely half that number. Consequently, Haji too, has lost his earnings.

Tahura, a weaver of Jamdani sharees, has been forced to shut down her home-based handloom unit due to a significant decline in demand over the past six months. The sharee is among the most labour-intensive forms of handloom-weaving, practiced in this region for centuries, and constitutes part of Bangladesh’s rich textile heritage. UNESCO recognized Jamdani as an intangible cultural heritage in 2013.

Festivals like Pohela Boishak (Bengali New Year celebrated on April 14th), Eid (important Muslim religious festival), and Durga puja (a Hindu religious festival) are the key seasons for sales of these fabrics and garments in Bangladesh. Most middle-class women city dwellers dream of having a Jamdani sharee – as a festival gift. However, this year weavers and sellers missed these three festive events for the first time due to the Covid lockdown.

The latest Handloom Census 2018 (preliminary report) of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimates that weavers produce about 2,000 Jamdani sharees per week. Several villages on the eastern side of the river Shitalakkhya, including Noapara, Rupshi, Moikuli, Khadun, Pobonkul, Murgakul, and Borab in Rupganj under Narayanganj district are known as the hub of Jamdani weaving and supply to markets both at home and abroad.

Image credit: Armanaziz / Wikimedia

Though the Jamdani artisans are scattered in different places in the country and a small portion in West Bengal in India, most of them live in the Rupganj and Narayanganj regions, and nearly 15,000 people from 3,000 families are engaged in the trade. The price of sharees ranges between Tk 5,000 and Tk 40,000 (ca. 59-472 USD). Specially made sharees can cost as much as Tk 150,000 (ca. 1799 USD).

Bangladesh Handloom Board (2018) data shows that the industry has witnessed a drastic fall in recent years, and the number of handlooms has declined by about 45% in 15 years. The total number of workers also fell to 301,757 (133,444 male and 168,313 female workers) from 888,115 workers in 2003. In 1990, the number was over one million.

Faria Sharmin and Sharif Tousif Hossain (2020), scholars from Stamford University Bangladesh and Sonia Ashmore (2018), an expert in handloom weaving industry and author of ‘Muslin,’ have documented that there are around 500 master weavers actively involved in Jamdani production activities. These master weavers have 6,500 working looms in total and the same number of weavers working as labourers.

Both studies indicate that this craft is facing extinction. Many of the artisans are abandoning this profession due to numerous obstacles, including being paid barely minimum wages (usually less than Tk 500 – ca. 5.90 USD – for a Tk 2,000 sharee) despite the back-breaking labour of their unique craftsmanship. These weavers had no direct or limited contact with the customers because they often work as bonded labourers under the traditional Jamdani weaving system. Fashion designers also depended on mahajans or wholesalers to buy their products. The COVID-19 crisis has made matters worse.

Income loss to weavers, production, and drop in sales of garments and textiles due to the crisis have resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment among weavers. To keep sales alive, many of these small entrepreneurs and weavers have started to sell these products online. According to the Women and E-commerce Forum (WE), more than 500 women have started small and home-based entrepreneurial businesses selling sharees, and other Jamdani yarn made garments like fatua and Panjabi (for men), and kamij (for women)via online platforms.

WE insiders confirmed to us that during September and the first half of October, Jamdani items sold Tk 5 million (close to 60.000 USD) worth across the country through such platforms. WE started in 2018, and within two years, members and followers on Facebook have already reached around a million customers. WE founding member Kakloy Russell Talokder, now a moderator and owner of Kakoly’s Attire, an online fashion platform solely dedicated to selling Jamdani, admits that there has been a five to ten-fold increase in sales through WE. When we interviewed her she stated: “The main reason is that during COVID-19 middle-class people started to depend on local Bangladeshi products through online sales”.

Image credit: Kamrul.vb / Wikimedia

Although artisans and their agents (buyers) missed the sales events for the first time in Bangladesh history due to the pandemic, Ms. Talukder says:   

“Online sales of Jamdani have soared recently, creating a new window of opportunities for the traders. […] Jamdani weavers have got a new life in recent years as entrepreneurs who sell Jamdani online. It helped them survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The boost received from online sales has helped revive Jamdani sales and the production as well. Mr. Kamal Hossain, the owner of a Dhakaiaa Jamdani, Lalkhanbazar, Chottogram branch, explained to us that online sales have increased recently. His centre sells around 20-30 sharees every week – in contrast to only 5-10 until last September. Earlier, he sourced the Jamdani collection through brokers from Rupganj but now he purchases these goods directly from handloom owners.

Kakoly Russell Talokder points out that online sales can be an excellent tool for promoting Jamdani, adding that Facebook plays a significant role here as about 33 million Facebook users exist in Bangladesh. She notes that there is very little information on the craft online, and as more and more individuals and organizations talk about Jamdani in these online forums, the more it will spread. According to her, the Jamdani sharee is not adequately promoted in the global market. There are over 30 million Bangla speaking people living overseas. “We could not reach our cultural treasure to them,” she laments.

However, the Textile Today (2017) reports that the demand for quality Jamdani Sarees has increased exponentially over the years, at home and abroad, particularly across the Bangladeshi diaspora in the West. Bangladesh received the Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Jamdani sharee in 2016, defined by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) as:     

“indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.”

Many entrepreneurs (WE members) hint that these recognitions will lead to further direct investment in production alongside ecommerce, creating a new turn in Jamdani waving. Adding to this, Ms. Talokder believes that “many people are used to the comfort and benefit of ordering online. This trend will continue and even expand in parts of Bangladesh. Thus, women, weavers do not need to be worried about their low pay.”

Haji Razzaque is also hopeful that increasing demand through sales can boost weavers’ income. However, Tahura, who was trained in Jamdani weaving by her father at a young age, does not want to engage her 12-year daughter in this hard, low-paid work. She doubts that increased online sales may be sufficient to motivate weavers to stick with the craft.

However, if the numbers cited by WE are any indication, coupled with the push for more online engagement among Handloom owners and retailers, there is a glimmer of hope that these new digital forums can help sustain this craft and possibly encourage young people from weaving families to preserve their heritage. It remains to be seen whether the interest and momentum to go online, provided by the COVID-19 crisis, will be sustained in the long term.