“Legacy is not leaving something for people; it is leaving something in people”
As you walk the streets of Jandiala Guru, you are welcomed by the ‘thak thak’ sound of hammering of utensils and as you walk further in, you see the faces of men: men trying desperately to hold on to their art long forgotten, men crippled by the inability to feed their family. As generation after generation, the number of people to carry the legacy forward falls, the solitary old man, having lost the ability to listen, sits back saddened as the culture of his past fades away into a future that looks nothing but gloomy.
The Thatheras of Jandiala Guru are a community of skilled craftsmen who specialize in the traditional technique of hammering brass and copper sheets into traditional utensils. This crafts colony of Jandiala Guru was established during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1883) the great 19th century Sikh Monarch, who encouraged skilled crafters from Kashmir to settle in the heart of his kingdom in Punjab. Jandiala Guru became an area of repute due to the skill of the Thatheras. The craft of the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru of Punjab has got the distinction of being inscribed on the Representatives List of the Intangible Culture Heritage, UNESCO in November 2014.
The metals used by the Thatheras-copper, brass and certain alloys- are believed to be beneficial for health. The process begins with procuring cooled cakes of metal that are flattened into thin plates and then hammered into curved shapes, creating the required small bowls, rimmed plates, to larger pots for water and milk, huge cooking utensils and other artifacts. Utensils are manually finished by polishing with traditional materials such as sand and tamarind juice. Designs are made by skillfully hammering a series of tiny dents into the heated metal. The process of manufacturing is transmitted orally from father to son. Metalwork is not simply a form of livelihood for Thatheras, but it defines their family and kinship structure, work ethic and status within the social hierarchy of the town.
Over time these artisans, owing to several problems, had started to lose their charm and had become naturally deprived and poverty stricken. They struggled with financial difficulties that sprung out of the exploitative nature of Kasariyas; middlemen who ill-treated the Thatheras by making untimely and inadequate payments to them.
Low and irregular wages made it extremely tough for them to sustain livelihood in this occupation. Poor working conditions were revealing detrimental effects to their physical and mental wellbeing. Lastly, the inaccessibility to markets hindered their ability to earn revenues contributing to low financial status in society.
Modern times have also witnessed a growth in the use of machinery for the production of utensils. With such mechanization, machine- made goods became easier to produce and therefore cheaper in price, thereby adding to the competition. In addition to this, steel and aluminium utensils had started to sweep the markets owing to greater demand that emerged from low prices and easier maintenance. The community of the Thatheras had faced oppression by middlemen, competition by steel and aluminium utensils and sharp decline in demand for their products over the years, thus reducing the number of families involved in the occupation from 500 to 30.
Enactus SRCC, after coming across this community, researched extensively on the project. Understanding the need to create demand for these Thatheras in order to sustain the art that also finds recognition in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage; we started looking at avenues where we could sell our products. Project Virasat aims to solve the problems faced by the Thatheras through a three-fold approach. First, reviving the demand for their products by combining traditional designs with contemporary tastes. Second, increasing its customer base by establishing market linkages through retail outlets and a strong e-commerce presence. Lastly, increasing their standard of living by Institutionalisation of the Thatheras through the formation of a Self Help Group (SHG) and legalizing their identity as craftsmen and businessmen.
Unification: Project Virasat brought back the Thatheras to their traditional occupation by unifying and organizing them into an institutionalized setup and helping them realize greater profits and higher incomes. All of this ensures equity and inclusiveness of all the thatheras.
Innovation and efficiency: The craftsmen initially crafted products having outdated designs, we collaborated with professional and veteran designers who came up with 85 new designs catering to niche markets. We ensure strict quality standardization for our products.
Scalable & Sustainable solution: We have established a legal entity known as ‘Punjabi Thathera Art Legacy’, abbreviated as P-TAL, the brand name under which our products are sold and the Hindi name for brass. P-TAL has established itself in 14 retail outlets across 7 states. Also, our efforts to ensure sustainable access to demand avenues for the Thatheras have been realized through the setting up of our own retail outlet in the popular tourist destination of Gobindgarh Fort in Amritsar. We have also successfully held 20+ exhibitions including, Pitex in Amritsar, Dilli Haat, Archibuild in Chandigarh, Dastkar and IITF in Delhi, and two international exhibitions;
Homesouk in Singapore, Italian Design Week in the Italian Embassy. Tapping the international markets, P-TAL has obtained its Import Export Code and is a registered member of FIEO and EPCH, and caters to orders in over more than 20 countries.
Seamless technology infusion: We have a dedicated website www.ptal.in and Instagram reach of 14000+ followers. We are listed on 10+ e-commerce websites like Amazon, Etsy, Flipkart, LBB, which helps us cater to a lot of online orders pan India as well as internationally. We serve the institutional buyers for corporate gifting and have a different collection altogether for wedding gifting known as ‘Vivaha’. We also launched a new collection ‘Ekikaran’ which is a culmination of Udaipur miniature paintings and the thathera art.
“To gain the trust of artisans and to get the customer attention were two points we struggled with initially. I remember in the beginning it was very demotivating when sometimes staying in Amritsar, I had nothing to do and felt like I was wasting my time and it might never turn around, but Enactus was a big support, and each time I thought of leaving, something made me stay.” These are the words of Ms Kirti Goel, Founder Designer of P-TAL.
Project Virasat aspires to incorporate more Thatheras from all across the country under P-TAL and bring back the glory of other dying craft forms of India. There are over 47 Thathera clusters in India. Thatheras of many other clusters are now petty traders, involved mainly in the selling of utensils and other household items. Our long term goal involves bringing the Thatheras clusters working in different regions of India together. This will help us to save them from exploitation and give our project a pan-India form. Our model has created a tremendous impact by including the Thatheras of Indore and Chandni Chowk, Delhi.
Today, in every corner of this vast country we find lone warriors of art who have held onto their craft and art forms and despite all odds have been trailblazers in not only keeping traditions alive but giving them contemporary meaning and relevance. Over the years, it has been observed that interventions, ranging from conservation of monuments to exploration and experimentation of contemporary art forms, can help preserve and sustain art and culture at the grassroots level.
Like the Thatheras, P-TAL is an epitome of making tradition a trend, preserving a legacy through legal entity converting practice into perfection thus moulding the vessels of hope.