The Craft Coteries of Pune
The hot summer sun beats down fiercely on the tin roofs of the workshops, and splashes gold on the tiny turquoise and chartreuse homes on either side of the narrow lane. It’s relatively early, but this colony of coppersmiths tucked in Kasba Peth, the epicenter of Pune, is abuzz with the sonorous tonk tonk of chisel and hammer. A few kasars (“coppersmiths” in Marathi) work by the road, hammering copper and brass pots, while another man with gnarled hands and a weather-beaten face works a sheet of copper in a kiln. As the yellow flames of the fire lick at the shiny-brown copper, he nudges it into shape. He is old and almost deaf. “Ashok has been hammering copper pots for years, and this has taken a toll on his hearing,” explains Kishor Potphode, who works and lives in the adjoining warren-like workshop and home.
As I watch the coppersmiths work at a trade that their ancestors had been practicing right here at the same place during the Peshwai era (the 18th century), I wonder if I’ve stepped back in time. In this modest colony of coppersmiths, or Tambat Ali as it’s locally known (tamba means copper), there is no trace of the flamboyant and glitzy Pune that most of us who’ve grown up in this city are used to. In fact, not many outside the city really know about this place—a place that once was patronized by the great Peshwas.
Sometime in the 18th century, the ancestors of the present coppersmiths migrated from Kosam Gaon to Pune, to supply the Peshwai households with copperware such as betel nut boxes, bumb (an old water heater), rolling pins, utensils, and storage vessels. Some of the coppersmiths still use an article or two that their great-grandfathers created. Potphode, an artisan in his fifties, shows me an ancient water heater that the family has preserved. It has lost its rich coppery sheen and is swathed in a layer of dust, but the bumb still stands testimony to its sturdy past. The neglected old copper heater takes me back to the days of the Peshwas. I visualize the women, in rich silk saris and pearls, cooking in burnished copper pots, storing their favourite snack—betel nuts—in intricately-carved copper boxes, sipping their evening tea or saffron milk from heavy copper or brass tumblers. Coppersmiths flourished in that bygone era, their craft commanding handsome prices.
Over the years, the Peshwas have disappeared, and the preference of people has changed as well. Mass produced plastic, steel and Teflon-coated utensils have replaced the durable copper pots and pans. With business being poor and slow-moving, more and more coppersmiths are abandoning their craft and turning to other jobs to earn a living. “None of my children want to do this work,” says Potphode, whose three brothers were expert coppersmiths, but have now got themselves “proper” jobs.
With artisans moving away to other professions, a colony that once had over a hundred coppersmiths now has about 40-50. But neither the sine curve of economy, nor the change of preference, has dimmed the fervor with which the remaining lot of coppersmiths work in Tambat Ali.
All the artisans here follow the same gruelling schedule as their ancestors. They wake up early and sit down to work at seven, and hammer and sculpt till six in the evening, with just an hour’s break in the afternoon for lunch. When I visit the colony, they are hard at work, every single artisan, chiselling pots, sculpting them with fire, washing them in acid. Smaller, shinier copper pots, recently dipped in acid, sun themselves on the roofs of work shops; while, stacks of ancient-looking mammoth copper pots teeter beside the roads, against a backdrop of blue and green homes, making me feel that perhaps some nobleman from the Peshwai era forgot to collect them.
Right there in the bylanes of Tambat Ali, the warm air thick with the sounds of hammer and chisel on copper, I am suddenly a little disoriented. For a moment time plays a strange game. Is this a little ghost town, where the kasars have come back to live and work in the neglected work sheds and homes? A yellow and black auto rickshaw scuttles through the heart of the colony and a couple of rickety scooters scurry past, breaking my reverie, and asserting the present.
I walk past homes and lanes where knots of craftsmen are hunched over their handiwork, creating utensils that will be valued by a very select few. The sound is deafening, but the sight of these good men, pouring themselves into a craft that is so much part of our heritage, is heartening. “We make things like handa (utensils), kalash (small pots used for poojas and weddings) and tapeles (pots) that will be sold in the market by a middleman,” explains Ganesh, a young coppersmith, adding that customers buy copper pots during the wedding season, when feasts are cooked in traditional vessels. Their craft is seasonal—while they manage to sell a few products during the marriage season, monsoons put a halt in the hum of activity in Tambat Ali and the coppersmiths are left twiddling their thumbs. “Since we work with metal, we need to keep these pots away from the rain,” states Ganesh.
It’s the business factor that nudged Potphode, who is a direct a descendant of Babu Maruti Potphode, after whom the street in Tambat Ali is named, to switch to aluminium pots, which are more popular with customers. Perched on a khadvai, an iron and wooden bar that looks quite like a hobby horse, he chisels a fish-scale pattern on the surface of the pot to make it look more aesthetically appealing. The new work is easier and less cost intensive.
My time with the modest, cheerful and hardworking coppersmiths makes me wonder if they will again get the same recognition and value for preserving and working on a craft that Indians couldn’t do without in earlier times.
It’s a new day and a new trip to a place that is even more ancient than Tambat Ali. I set out early in the morning, when the sun pours just the right amount of sunshine and the streets of Pune have minimum traffic.
Today, armed with a camera, I’m heading towards Ganesh Peth in a rickety auto rickshaw. Just behind the bustling markets, ensconced in winding narrow lanes, is Burud Ali, the lane of cane craftsmen. It isn’t difficult to spot the area. Golden cane spills onto the narrow street, in bundles and bales, stacks and piles. There are flashes of gold almost everywhere, tumbling onto the street, packed inside dingy sheds, propped up against the facades of the bright blue homes.
The cane crafts glisten in the warm rays of the sun. It’s still too early for buyers to turn up, but the stalls and make-shift shops that flank the narrow street have been stocked to the brim. From finely-woven baskets of various sizes to sturdy ladders, mats and blinds, to tiny kulfi sticks and shoots of bamboo, lamp shades and brooms, the streets of Burud Ali are choc-a-bloc with cane and other artefacts.
A woman in a red polyester sari stands among the cane ware with her granddaughter on her hip, while another man is sitting at another stall, enjoying the few hours of calm and patiently waiting for the first customer to walk in. Devika Bai Chinchawle, is busy at work, slicing cane into kulfi, candy floss and agarbatti (incense) sticks with her koita (a curved instrument for slicing bamboo) and saw. “I have been doing this work for several years, ever since I was a little girl,” says this septuagenarian, whose whole family has been working on cane crafts for as long as she can remember.
Her son, Suryakant Chinchawle, manages the Shri Narayan Bamboo Depot that was founded by his late father. He has successfully managed to bag big contracts with constructions companies and has even introduced lots of other cane products into their business. “We make everything from baskets to winnows and ladders to partitions and house frames,” explains Suryakant, who learnt the craft from his father.
Suryakant and Devika are generous with their time and knowledge, and share nuggets of information about the bamboo business, a tradition that dates back to the era before the Peshwas. “Our ancestors, who belonged to the Maratha Burud Samaj, originally came from a small village of cane craftsmen in the Junnar district. They had been making and supplying the people of Poona with their cane products even before the Peshwas made their presence felt in the city.” Devika Bai adds that these stone houses that the craftsmen occupy now, were once stables for horses in Shivaji’s times.
But the wheel of time has changed the fate of most traditional craftsmen in India. Factory-made goods are more popular with people, and plastic wins hands down over cane. And it’s the same story as the coppersmiths. The new generation of cane craftsmen are taking up lucrative professions. With lesser people turning to cane crafts to make a living, the colony that once housed more than four hundred craftsmen, now has less than half the number of people working in this trade.
As I begin to wonder about the fate of handicrafts in India, Sheetal, Devika’s “office-going” granddaughter, who is a wiz at software and has quite a few ideas up her sleeve, chips in with her views. “Even though I don’t work with cane as a profession, I plan to develop these crafts and introduce them to people all around the country. Maybe, design more innovative products, market them better, and do an in-depth study about the craft.” She has an idea and even the will to package and spread the word about these traditional crafts.
I learn from the artisans around that the bamboo is sourced from Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Nagpur, and Konkan. The craftsmen spend their entire day, slicing, sawing, weaving and creating all the products in their repertoire. Diwali and Dashera are busy times for them and business is brisk. The cane craftsmen make sweet hampers and dry fruit baskets that people fill up with goodies and gift each other on festivals. They also make the lovely lamps and stars covered in tinsel and coloured cellophane that several Indians hang from their porches.
The artisans explain that bamboo is still a very essential part of the Maharashtrian culture and Hinduism. During the festival of Gudi Padva in Maharashtra, people need a piece of bamboo or cane to hang the gudi on their rooftops. “Also, when a person dies, he needs to be carried on a stretcher made of bamboo, before being cremated,” states Devika, adding that bamboo is an integral part of people’s lives.
Devika, the old grandmother, who packs in eight to ten hours of work everyday, pulls out a mythical tale about cane craftsmen from her bag of stories. “Lord Shiva had blessed a cane craftsman. According to the blessing whenever he would slice a shoot of bamboo, he would find a thread of gold in it. However, after the craftsman had collected a substantial amount of gold, he gifted all of it to a beggar who was passing by. This angered Shiva and he cursed the community of cane craftsmen with “Bot ghiso aur pot bharo (Work with bamboo to fill your stomach).” Ever since then, we have been working very hard to make a living.”
She chuckles softly, as she finishes her story and picks up her koita to slice bamboo into neat little sticks that will be used in the kulfis we devour during the long, hot months of summer.
The streets are filling up with people and bustling traffic, and the cane artisans have long hours of work ahead of them. It’s time to head home.
How to get to Tambat Ali and Burud Ali: If you’re in Pune and would like to visit the colonies, just hop onto a rickshaw and ask the driver to take you to both the places.
Best time: The coppersmiths, as well as the cane craftsmen, begin their work day early. It is advisable to visit the colonies before 10 in the morning, to avoid the traffic that surges through the streets.
Best season: While Pune is known for its good weather all through the year, you might want to visit between the months of November and March and then again in August or September.
Chandana Banerjee is an independent journalist and content writer based in India. She also runs her own writing company called Pink Elephant Writing Studio.