When gold became expensive, many Tantibazar artisans moved back to their village homes in Vakurta to work on silver. Today, with silver also expensive, the artisans work with brass and bronze and battle for survival against cheap Indian jewellery
The village of Vakurta is only 27 kilometres away from Farmgate, Dhaka.
Most people these days know the place as "gohona gram" (jewellery village). Even though the jewellers say they have been living there for a few generations - nearly a century – it became well-known as gohona gram only two to three decades back.
Making jewelleries is like a household chore in this village. Not just men, women and children also work here hand-in-hand in making jewelleries. It is a part of their lifestyle.
Kolpona Rani Dash, who learned the craft from her father, abides by the age-old routine. In the morning, she sits in a circle with other women in the yard. They start crafting jewellery pieces. All of them were working on payels (ornament for feet) made of silver when we arrived there.
For Kolpona, the order she received to make these payels is very important, as silver has become a scarce material. Across the yard, Kalpana's brother is polishing the completed payels in a small room.
Nowadays, they work more on bronze and brass. Together, they make up the largest wholesale market for jewellery. Vendors from all over the country come here to buy ornaments in bulk. Sometimes ornaments from here are exported to other countries.
These artisans are not paid on the number of pieces they make. Rather, their wages are based on weight. For each kilogramme, they will get paid Tk250. This is why they work in a group to have a stronger workforce. None of them had enough time to respond to our queries or concentrate on anything else.
When Kolpona's daughter came to her to ask about something, she made her join the work as well.
The artisans toiling here these days have ancestors who once used to work in the gold market of Tanti Bazar in Old Dhaka. They would spend days in Tanti Bazar crafting intricate gold jewelleries and would only come home to Vakurta during festivals.
Everyone was happy with the arrangement as the income was good.
But things started to change gradually. Some years after liberation, the price of gold started to increase, but the wages of artisans remained the same. They were stuck at minimum wage at a time when prices of all other goods went up.
Craftmanship no longer remained profitable work for them. That is when some of the artisans decided to come back to their ancestral village and employ their expertise on silver, as silver happened to be cheaper at that time.
Rabindro, now a Mahajan who once worked in Tanti Bazar, said, "It was around the 1980s when some 200 of us left Tanti Bazar and started our work here. We needed more people to advance our business. So, we taught our wives and others who were interested. Our business started to expand within a short time."
The more the business grew, so did the popularity of the place as gohona gram. Well, this is how the locals describe the legend of the gohona gram in short.
Visitors intending to have a tour of the village should walk, as it is difficult for any vehicle to ply through the muddy roads. Outside of the bumpy roads, the absence of urban cacophony, and the greenery, make the environment soothing to a city dweller's eyes.
At the heart of the village is Chunar Bazar, a marketplace where thousands of jewellery pieces are on display, but none of them look like the shiny ones we see in jewellery shops or shopping malls.
However, a shopkeeper said that most of those enormous jewellery pieces on display at the big shops are sourced from gohona gram.
"This is a wholesale marketplace for jewellery. We sell designed structures. Vendors buy these pieces from us, take them to the city, polish them, adorn them with stones and then showcase them in the shop," said Masum Najrul, who was dealing with a wholesale buyer.
Najrul had tiaras, necklace, and sitahar in exclusive designs. In this wholesale market, he sells each piece of necklace between Tk350 and Tk750, depending on intricacy of design. These pieces sell at big shops from Tk3,500 to Tk7,500.
Najrul and his wife have been making jewellery for 17 years, but they are not jewellery artists by profession. His father was a farmer, but the income from agriculture was not enough for the family.
Initially, he set up a stationery shop, which did not work for him either.
Talking about that time, he explained, "Actually, the Hindus of this area were involved in the jewellery sector. The others depended on agriculture. But when they returned from Tanti Bazar, they needed more people. We also needed a profession that allowed us to earn more money."
The situation created a dependency on each other and has kept a balance between them.
"When I asked Kartik Mahajan to teach me the art he had mastered, he took me under his wings with open arms," said Najrul.
Time passed by and his business expanded. Now he has become a Mahajan himself. To this day, whenever he faces any challenge, he runs to his teacher and they solve the problem together.
But the problem lies elsewhere. Be it Najrul, Kartik or Robindro, they all question the ecosystem their business is standing upon.
Rojot Kanti, the president of Jewellery Samabay Samity, said, "We started our craft on silver, taking it as an alternative to gold. Eventually, the price of silver as a raw material had also gone high. Now we cannot afford that either."
The artisans have now embraced brass and copper as their raw materials, and they employ the same craftsmanship on these. It was getting them some profits until cheaper Indian ornaments took over the market.
"Most of those goods are coming to our country through illegal channels. As a result, our products are losing market share," said Rojot.
"Around 3,000 artists are directly involved in this sector. Many others' names are not even recorded on the list. Yet, we do not get recognition as an industry," he said.
Though they believe their artistry has the potentiality to make a mark in the global market, their products are getting overshadowed by Indian ones.
There are fault lines in the business structure as well. To expand their business, they need bank loans. As they are not recognised as a sector of industry, banks are reluctant to grant them any loan.
Moreover, whenever they buy gold or silver for their business, they get harassed by the police who confuse them with people operating in the black market.
"It becomes extremely difficult to convince them [police] of our innocence," Rojot said.
The artisans demand recognition for their work. They want to get recognised as artists and want the government to convince banks to lend to them for business.