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Worth a ‘lac’ and more: Women bangle- makers shape legacy art

This story gives us a glimpse of the life of women who carry forward the family tradition of making the distinctive lac bangles of Rajasthan, giving it modern twists to stay relevant

Afreen and Salma shaping bangles at their workshop. Photos: Shefali Martins

In the diverse handicraft palette of Rajasthan, even older than the exotic Kundan Meena jewellery, is the art of making lac bangles. The legacy art with a history dating back to Vedic times is carried forward from generation to generation through the hands of women entrepreneurs pivotal to the process right from its making to its sale. Pronounced as laakh in Hindi (one hundred thousand in the Indian system of measurement), behind its vivid colours and painstaking process is a rich cultural context.

Salma Sheikh and her daughter-in-law Afreen Sheikh of Ganahera Village outside Pushkar carry on the lac bangle making tradition that has been running in their family. While the entire family is engaged in the bangle-making process, Salma and Afreen run two shops selling the wares. A majority of lac bangle makers in Rajasthan are Manihars from the Muslim community.

In the evenings, when you pass by their shop, you can see Salma sitting with her family rolling coil and shaping bangles. In the day, she runs the 100-year-old shop in the main market at Pushkar. Her daughter-in-law sits at their shop located outside their house, adjacent to the workshop where they manufacture bangles. She adds the embellishments to the bangles and attends to customers.

Like all other ancient crafts, this art too is dipped in natural dyes of sustainability and rootedness. Lac is a natural resinous substance secreted by lac insects. The lac is collected from trees and Salma’s family sources it in the form of shellac flakes — small, flat discs locally called chapadi. They make a base mixture by melting chapadi with two other natural ingredients. Water is then added to the mixture. Once it forms a thick lump and cools down, they knead it and roll it into coils. They attach the coil to a thick round wooden rod and then heat it over burning coal.

“We use coloured lac blocks to give different colours to the bangles. We elongate a part of this coil and cut it into small pieces that are shaped and joined as a bangle. These days, a thin metal bangle is used as a base, but for bangles made only of lac, we use a wooden cast to give it the desired size. This is an entirely handcrafted, tedious process which requires hours of sitting before the heated coals,” shares Salma.

Salma learnt the art in childhood by observing her parents and Afreen too learnt it growing up. “I have completed high school. I could have studied further but I enjoy this work and continued to do it after marriage. I have a five-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter. What I find extremely comforting is that I am able to manage the house, my children and my work at the same time,” says 24-year-old Afreen who is an effective salesperson and convinces prospective buyers about the durability of her bangles. Afreen enjoys the independence and interaction that comes with the work which many women don’t have after they get married.

The work has always been about women entrepreneurship. Many generations ago, each village used to have a dedicated Manihar family that was especially given space to live there. The maniharin (woman) used to go from house to house and sell bangles and get silver or gold rings and wheat in return. Only women sold bangles as the new brides of the village and the other women too would be comfortable around women.

“Those days this work was much in demand. In our profession, both boys and girls learn this art by observing their parents but it is usually the women who run shops and embellish the bangles. Men are largely involved in the base work of making the bangles,” Salma’s husband Mohammad Sharif Sheikh says while rolling a coil of bright pink and green lac over the fire.

“Till about 20 years ago, women used to come to us and get a bangle fitted to their exact wrist size by heating. They’d take it off only after a year or two. Now everyone wants bangles matching with their outfits, so we make them in more colours. Bangles used to be thicker in circumference, now women like to wear the thinner ones. Hindu wedding rituals across many communities are incomplete without lac bangles. Earlier, we had a lot of sales on festivals, too,” shares Salma while showing a new design she made. Today, she even inserts photos and writes names on lac bangles, especially on the sets prepared for weddings.

The price ranges from Rs 40 for a set of two bangles to Rs 2500 for the heavily embellished sets. “The inexpensive range is more popular. We charge a nominal margin over the making so we don’t encourage much bargaining,” shares Afreen.

Salma, who has studied up to middle school, believes that running a shop has helped her learn many new things. “I speak to the customers and gain knowledge about various aspects. I didn’t know how to speak Marwari, as I grew up in Indore, now I am fluent in it. I get more of village customers and local women at the shop and not as many foreign tourists who are regulars in Pushkar,” she says.

Today, their art faces a threat from cheaper and fancier options in metal and plastic. “The same design on a 100-rupee lac bangle can cost Rs 20 if done on plastic. However, while plastic bangles can cause allergy in some women, lac bangles make for more comfortable wear. Moreover, old lac bangles can be powdered and reused,” Salma points out.

The Sheikhs make about 150-180 bangles a day. “We are the only lac bangle makers in this area. The art also gives employment to women who do the work of adding the nag (embellishments) to the bangles sitting in their homes. It is a good way for them to earn some money. Our bangles go to the women in Pushkar and the Nagfani area of Ajmer for embellishments. Afreen and I also do the embellishments at the shop,” Salma says. The women who they outsource work to earn about Rs 100-150 a day by adding nag to the bangles.

The Sheikhs believe that they are able to survive the competition because they are manufacturers and all members of the family contribute to the work. Were they only bangle sellers, they wouldn’t have been able to manage. “It is tough. Hours of sitting before the coals irrespective of the season is truly exhausting. But, since it is my own work, I feel happy in not only carrying forward my family tradition but also earning my own money. Afreen too doesn’t have to ask for money for her personal expenses,” Salma says.

Salma has been promoting her business online through WhatsApp groups for the past two years. Though she doesn’t have an idea about e-commerce sites, she thinks the next generation could take that route. “My younger son is still a student, and I have two young grandchildren. I want them to study and move ahead in life, and, if they use their knowledge to connect our art with technology, it will grow in a big way. We are able to make ends meet as of now, but technology can help us earn more. Since it runs in our family, I’d like my grandchildren to learn this art if it interests them.”

In rural homes, when earthen pots develop a crack, they are repaired by using a thick solution made by melting old or broken lac bangles. This seals the crack, makes the pot last longer and delays the urgency of getting a new one. Sustainability is in every aspect of this legacy art – safe and comfortable for the wearer and a sustainable livelihood option for the hands that shape it, sitting in front of burning coal for long hours even in the hottest summers of Rajasthan.

Note: The writer is a recipient of the Sanjoy Ghose Media Awards 2022.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features)

November 2022

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