As I make my way through the narrow bylanes of Jandiala Guru, a quiet town on the outskirts of Amritsar, the bustling cultural and religious epicentre of Punjab, the "thak thak" sounds of karigars clanging away at metal sheets lead me towards my destination&mdashBazaar Thatherian. The Thatheras is a hard-working community of artisans who have been manufacturing brass and copper utensils in this nondescript town for over two centuries. Sadly, the hammering sound&mdashan aural experience synonymous with Jandiala, is gradually dimming.
Life In The Bylanes
The unguarded steps of Amrit Lal's unplastered two-storeyed house take you to the higher floors where his two sons, their wives, and children live. At 70, he is one of the oldest practising thatheras in this crafts colony, having learnt the trade 50 years ago from his father, a kaansa (bronze) craftsman from Phagwara.
Lal tells me that he has mastered shaping pital (brass) into small diyas and other vessels. At his feet, his younger son Mandeep toils away, leaving minute impressions on the metal that sets their craft apart. "Today, mass-produced vessels have a lot of milawat (adulteration) we do not do that. Here, each artisan's handwork is unique. No two people can make the same product. We take pride in making parats plates without any joints, out of a single sheet," Lal adds.
His words ring true for all the artisans that call Bazaar Thatherian their home. All brass and copper vessels are handmade.
When I reach Gurcharan's workshop a few houses away, he explains how he shapes metal sheets into delicate vessels by welding, riveting, heating and skilled hammering, which leaves them with designs characteristic of this community. These utensils are later polished by hand using a combination of sand, diluted acid and tamarind juice, skills he learnt from his father, who came to Jandiala from Pakistan during the Partition.
A Syncretic Past
In Jandiala Guru, being a thathera is not simply a livelihood choice. Manufacturing utensils defines their life. Lota, katoriyan, handi, tumblers&mdasheach shop displays various items manufactured for ceremonial and domestic purposes for individuals and the community.
The legacy of the thatheras goes back 200 years, but it was only in 2008 that Dr Yaaminey Mubayi, a Delhi-based historian and community development specialist, came upon the thathera settlement and later worked to prepare the nomination dossier for the inclusion of their community on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
"I started to recognise Amritsar through its link with Lahore, especially under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who had originally asked multiple craftsmen from Kashmir to settle in Amritsar. In 1947, Kashmiri Muslim thatheras migrated to Pakistan, and 400 Hindu thathera families came from Pakistan to settle in Jandiala, propagating a cultural, ethnographical and demographical exchange," she describes. The thatheras were finally inscribed onto UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2014.
However, this centuries-old traditional craft seems to be fading away, with stainless steel, plastic and ceramic now ubiquitous in our daily lives. The number of families practising this art here has dwindled from hundreds to barely 25. Over the last few decades, various thathera families took up other occupations the newer generations did not find merit in the back-breaking craft and left it for greener pastures.
"One of the biggest reasons is the lack of financial stability," says Hari Krishan Suri as he guides me into his shop, two lanes away from Lal's, where he has been making handis and water containers for over 50 years.
"I have two sons, neither wanting to become a thathera." Newly polished vessels shine bright at his feet while he hammers neat dots onto their surface.
A Glimmer of Hope
Today, more than ever, there is a focus on preserving India's intangible cultural heritage. With a unique ethnic and historical identity, the metalwork of the thatheras is slowly being given its time in the spotlight. One such initiative is Punjab Thathera Art Legacy (P-TAL), an independent startup that aims to revive this dying art form. It started as one of the projects under Project Virasat by students of Enactus SRCC in 2018. "Under Virasat, we researched dying craft forms that needed support and sustenance. We found that this incredible thathiyar art form faced an uphill battle. Middlemen exploited them, often earning as low as Rs 2,000 a month for all their hard work, made worse by a decline in demand for copper and brass utensils," says Aditya Agrawal, co-founder and CEO at P-TAL. He is associated with the initiative since its inception at SRCC.
In India, eating in brass and copper vessels has been practised for years. While they are considered beneficial for health, these vessels are expensive and harder to maintain and have lost the favour of the masses in modern times. P-Tal hopes to change that. Their three-pronged approach includes the institutionalisation of artisans, design development and training, and market access through modern techniques. Many artisans associated with P-Tal have now added contemporary touches to their traditional utensils.
"For example, we attached a tap along with a lid and a stand to a copper matka or Tamera (a traditional design) to transform it into a water dispenser," says Aditya. The original Tamera was designed by Suri, who gladly displays the dusty model.
Today, many visit the village to learn about the craft and buy unique handicrafts but the thatheras are sceptical and do not believe the next generation will follow suit. Charanjeet, who has toiled away at his equipment for many decades, asserts, "Most children have taken up other jobs. One of my sons is an accountant the other started helping me a few years ago."
Amrit Lal's wife echoes the same sentiment as I quickly gulp the refreshment she offers in a beautiful brass glass, display of generous Punjabi hospitality. "Ab inko ache se padhaenge, ye kaam nahi karwana (We will make sure he is educated he doesn't have to do this)," she quips when asked if she'd like to see her grandson Jatin join his father's trade. However, young thatheras like Mandeep, Pankaj and Puneet, who have come back to the fold, believe the future is brighter if more grassroots support comes their way. Amidst this earnest conversation, Jatin is busy playing with the raw material strewn across the floor, blissfully unaware.
Despite UNESCO recognition, thatheras have been relegated to the margins of history for a long time. Mubayi believes the change needs to be propelled by the community itself. "More government support, in the form of tourism infrastructure, a living museum and demonstration centre could also mitigate the setbacks that crafts of India have suffered due to rapid industrialisation."
Their cultural legacy is fast disappearing from modern memory, and with few to follow in their ancestor's footsteps, it stands to be lost to the ravages of time, the dimming sounds serving only as a memory of the craft that once brought glory to these narrow bylanes of Jandiala.