One can’t imagine Indian dance forms and temples without ghungroos and ‘ghantis’. Today, the country’s increasing demand for them is met by Etah artisans who have perfected bell-making through the centuries but remained unrecognised for their merit. In the fifth of a series on the One District One Product (ODOP) Initiative, we look at how the programme is helping Etah to retain its status as India’s biggest supplier of ghungroos.
One of the first things that the Nirmohi Akhara did, almost immediately after the delivery of the final verdict on the Ram Mandir in 2019, was to place an order for a two-ton brass bell for the new temple with the bellmakers of Jalesar in the Etah district of western UP. In fact, from Kedarnath to Mahakaleshwar, any temple that one visits will most likely have bells that originated in this metalware cluster of the Etah district.
It is claimed that the Etah soil is especially well-suited for the crafting of moulds that enhance the acoustics and resonance of brass. Whether it is the clay that goes into the mould or the fine craftsmanship of Etah artisans that is responsible for the sonority of its brassware is a puzzle, but this district’s unique signature product — pitch-perfect bells, ranging from tiny ‘ghungroos’ (anklet bells) to massive ‘ghantis’ (temple bells), can be found nowhere else in the country.
In fact, Jalesar, a town of barely 60,000 people, controls India’s supply of ghungroos. More than just ornamental pieces, as an integral part of almost all Indian dance forms, they complement the performance and fulfil highly specific musical pitch requirements, which, the local artisans of Etah have perfected.
Casting a niche
The biggest brasswork cluster in India is centred around the district of Moradabad, which has a large and established metalwork industry dating back to the 19th century. According to the Handicrafts Survey Monographs prepared at the time of the 1961 census, the UP city employed over 5,000 workers, compared to less than 200 in the Etah district. Yet, while Moradabad accounts for more than 75 per cent of India’s brassware exports, Jalesar has carved out a niche for its unique brassware in bell founding and casting.
Once a hereditary industry centred around a mohalla called Hataura in the town of Jalesar, and exclusively in the purview of a small group of families belonging to a metal-working caste called the Thatheras, this specialised skill was on the verge of dying out in the district. Its revival is, in part, due to the sustained intervention under the state’s One District One Product (ODOP) initiative. Starting with a series of artisan training programmes, which have skilled over 200 new artisans in bell casting and financed support to factory units employing over 10,000 people, the industry has seen signs of a vigorous resurgence in recent years.
Also read: Agra’s parchinkari — How ODOP is taking Mughal-era marble handicrafts to modern markets
Modi govt, take note
Although significant strides have been made under the ODOP initiative in promoting Etah’s ghungroos and ghantis, the industry suffered a setback just when it was showing signs of recovery due to the Covid-induced lockdown in 2020. While the district retains a monopoly on the ghungroo market, which is estimated to be worth over Rs 100 crore and witnessed 15 to 20 per cent growth before the lockdown, the Union Ministry of Commerce & Industry shortlisted four other districts for their brasswork under the ODOP Initiative — Purba Medinipur in West Bengal (chosen specially for its own bell metalwork), Tikamgarh in MP, Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, and Jangaon in Telangana — giving Etah strong competition.
To retain its dominance in the field, Etah needs to intensify its efforts in developing new markets for its bells. In 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed the traditional ‘brass craft of utensil-making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, Punjab’ in its Representative List of Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity, recognising the complexity and skill involved in traditional metallurgy. As Etah bells start to echo in global markets, a concrete step that the Narendra Modi government can take is to initiate the process of getting a geographical-indication (GI) tag and UNESCO recognition for bell-casting.
Another challenge remains in addressing issues of erratic electricity supply. Most of the smaller units work in a shift-based system with the actual smelting and mould-casting done between midnight and early morning and polishing and finishing work done during the daytime. Several of these remain only marginally viable without government support and are feasible for craftsmen only when the entire family is deployed in the work — something that is only gradually beginning to change. There is an additional need to address issues of occupational illnesses such as metal fume fever caused by the toxic zinc present in brass.
The future growth and development of this specialised handicraft cluster depend on a number of factors. The bell-casting hub, due to its proximity to Agra, is located within the Taj Trapezium Zone, where the setting up of new polluting industries is restricted. Traditional bell-casting depends heavily on coal-fired furnaces. It means that the large units or the mini-industrial parks, which the government wants to set up, need environmental clearances to proceed. These are issues that the ODOP initiative has to now focus on addressing, and despite its success, the survival of the bell-casting cluster might depend on its eventual relocation out of Jalesar and Etah district itself.
District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.
Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a Director in the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog where he works on the evaluation of government schemes. Sanyukta Samaddar is an IAS officer who is currently a Nodal Officer (SDGs), at NITI Aayog. She tweets @SanyuktaSam1. Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a Director in the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog where he works on the evaluation of government schemes. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)