“Anyone can make bells, but you need skill to create the right pitch and tone for each bell,” explains Razzak, a copper-bell artisan in Juriya village of Gujarat, adding, “Herders use the sound to recognise and locate their animals in a herd of hundreds.”
Razzak Saleh Muhammad Luhar, 42, belongs to the Luhar community (classified as Other Backward Caste in Gujarat). These metal-workers trace their origin to Sindh in Pakistan. During the Partition, some of these families migrated to the Kachchh region of Gujarat.
“Our family has been involved with this craft for over 100 years now. We started with making bells for cattle,” says Luhar Janmamad Salemamad, Razzak’s older brother, adding, “we learnt by watching and helping our grandfather and father make bells.”
Juriya lies close to the Jhura hills and is about 30 kilometers to the north of Bhuj – the district headquarters of Kachchh. Livestock rearing is the second largest employer in Kachchh after agriculture, according to the census of 2011. Cows and buffaloes are reared by farmers while sheep, goats, camels, horses and donkeys are reared by nomadic tribes in the region, and it is the former who use these bells.
Traditionally, goods were bartered between the different communities of Kachchh; even today some cattle-herders give the Luhars sheep or milk in exchange for bells. However, the market for these copper bells has now grown beyond cattle herders as they have become sought-after as decorative items too. Today there are 23 metal work artisans in Juriya who create copper bells with musical tones.
“We try new designs and new methods. Our products are priced starting at 30 rupees for a small bell, going up to 3,000 rupees for wind chimes and customised designs based on orders we receive on WhatsApp and by email,” says Janmamad. “The clap for the bell is made of wood supplied by the lakhar (wood) workers. The leather attachments and embroidery are done by leather workers and embroiderers from the Banni region in the district,” he adds.
The brothers show us a large xylophone made with seven bells that progressively increase in size and correspond to the seven basic notes of Indian music. As Razzak strikes each bell with a stick, it resonates with a clear and precise sound.
The family’s work space and shop are both located in the large courtyard of their home that is located down a narrow, dusty road, past a brightly painted mosque. In the compound, children and other members of the family of 12 are milling around; a couple of cows and their calves are resting. The family is used to strangers visiting the workshop and their shop that is lined with bells on metal stands. “We can make around 250-300 bells of all sizes every day,” says Razzak.
Making copper bells
Seated on the floor of the workshop with raw materials and neatly arranged tools within easy reach, Razzak explains the process of making a bell. First, a rectangular sheet of iron is shaped into a cylinder by holding it along the rim of a depression in a large stone and beating it with a hammer.
The stone, with its many depressions, is a unique tool in the bell-making process. “We get these stones from the Jhura hills – every time we need a new one, we go up into the hills to find one,” Razzak explains, as he measures the diameter of the cylinder with a compass and cuts a circle from the iron sheet to make a dome to fit on top of the cylinder. The handle of the bell is made by taking a rectangular strip of iron, cutting it to make sharp edges, twisting to make a loop and inserting through a cut in the dome.
“These tools are not available in the market, we make them here. We have tools that have been handed down from our forefathers. We use these old tools for improvising and improving our techniques to meet the increasing demand,” says Razzak.
Hammering the open edge of the bell, he says “we don’t do any welding”, referring proudly to a distinct feature of the bell-making craft here in Juriya. Hajra behen, Janmamad’s wife, then coats the completed bell with copper. She begins by first dipping the bell in wet mud and coating it with a mixture of sand, brass and copper powder. She then covers it with a layer of clay and bakes it in the open kiln for 10 minutes. Once out of the kiln, the hot clay-covered bell is dipped in water to cool and the outer clay covering is broken and removed. “This part of the work – which is easily half the work – is done by the women of the Luhar community,” Janmamad explains.
The bell then returns to the workshop where the artisan pores over it, tapping along the lower rim with his hammer. Shaking the bell gently, he bends his ear close to listen carefully. He works his way along the rim with deft movements, frowning with concentration until he is completely satisfied with the pitch and tone. Finally, the clap for the bell is attached.
The business of copper-bell craft
Janmamad has worked with the development commissioner of a central government-supported organisation that helped in the promotion and export of Indian handicrafts. He works with other groups and craft studios to develop new designs and to expand the business. “I travel abroad to different markets and often wish that I was more literate,” says Janmamad.
Almost half of Juriya’s population of 5,627 is not literate, and the brothers have made sure their children are educated. Janmamad’s daughters have completed their graduation and Razzak’s daughters are in school. Janmamad’s son, who is doing his graduation, has learned the craft and often helps in the business, but his father says, “He is looking for a government job and will stop doing the craft if he gets it.”
Despite the lockdown and the complete stop in tourism and other trade, the family continues to make bells and build up stock. However, like for all other craftspeople, this fall in demand resonates through their lives.
Ashwin Suresh is doing a master’s in Information Design at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. He visited Kachchh as part of a college project to study heritage crafts of the region. “Getting to know the artisans, learning about their techniques and then trying to find the right pitch and tone to express their story has been a learning experience. PARI Education helped me focus on accuracy in documentation, to question each sentence. I learnt that each word needs to be considered while building a narrative about people and their lives.”