In a day and age where technology has standardized human responses to situations and events , lies a world which believes in being one of a kind . With myriad thoughts and trepidation I stepped into the small nameless store in one of the by lanes of Tanjore.
Sitting by the side of a small stove , breathing life into gold was Arumuga Achari- a septuagenarian jeweler by family tradition. While I took in the sights and sounds of his home turned workshop, I stopped my gaze a little longer at the poonal(Sacred thread)on his shoulder. Capturing my gaze halting, he answered nonchalantly but with a twinge of pride ” We are one of the few Vaishya’s ( Traders) who can don this. It lends us that discipline and dedication at work.”
Acharis are traditional goldsmiths in the south of India who trace their origins to the Vishwakarma community. The community comprises of five sub groups of artisans and craftsmen- Carpenters, bronze smiths, goldsmiths,blacksmiths and stonemasons. They worship varying forms of the deity Vishwakarma and follow the Vedas for inspiration and discipline in their work and craftsmanship.
Their artistic skills commanded a higher social respect in the golden period of art and culture in India when their services defined an empire and dynasty. Stone masons and goldsmiths worked wonders in producing one of a kind creations for posterity. Living under the shadows of the magnificent Brihadeeshwara temple, Arumugam seemed to be transcending across two eras while still living in one.
As he referred notations from old palm fronds for the perfect cut, Arumugam Achari , explained how his profession has been eaten into by machine cut, precision based work, which neither displays the involvement or the unique characteristic of the artist.”The machine has swallowed imagination.” He surmised.
He recollected a story of an ancestor who had lost his right thumb to an accident. The maimed artisan had developed an exclusive design using only his left hand. The design even now stands as the signature piece of his family heirloom.
Handcrafted handicrafts were a flourishing art and trade form in pre British India. Fabrics, weaves, jewellery, architecture competed with each other in being one of a kind. Even flaws and mishaps were managed to render beauty and depth. To the seemingly civilized western world, the lack of standardization was a deep rooted menace. One that stood in the way of creating trade able common wealth.
Industrialization in the west had made mass production a sought after economic welfare measure. In comparison , spending months on an exquisite piece of work seemed to be a case fit for resource mismanagement. Soon the craftsmen saw their skills moved to the fringes of the society where hands were relegated for collecting alms in the name of salary.
Arumugam’s eyes misted when he spoke of his sons who have left the trade for better pastures in the cities. “Selva has a very strong hand and an excellent eye for detail. He however chose to join IT company and is now in Chennai. He works in the night and sleeps in the morning. For his wedding I cast jewellery for my daughter in law , however she also wanted some from the famous shops in Trichy. “
” One day they will realize that the art in their hands cannot die. For that day I have safeguarded some tools in a box for them to start where I leave.”
Amidst conversations, the hot liquid gold was deftly pulled by his wrinkled yet skillful fingers and therein emerged a criss cross of intricate knots and crosses.Entwined they formed a pattern that would soon encircle a girl’s neck welcoming her journey to womanhood.
Handicrafts , a term now debated in parliaments on varying fronts, brings forth the humaneness in humanity. A piece of hand woven cloth expresses between its warps and wefts a million moments of aspirations and dreams hidden in the soul of one who we may never know. But as we glide around them flattered in their beauty an unknown face breaks into a known smile.
As my hands glided over the still warm piece of chain , there stood out equally entwined in the metal Arumugam’s earnest hope for his art to survive.