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INVISIBLE AND ON THE EDGE

“For the artisan, the craft is an end in itself. For the artist, the craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision. Craft is the visible edge of art.” - David Bayles

There is almost a sense of deja vu, listening to the stories of the two craftsmen who create jewelry for Ivar by Ritika Ravi. The similarities in their stories start from the age at which both men were sent away from their homes and end in the same sense of despair wafting through the phone as they discuss their current situation one week into the lockdown.

There is the sound of a child talking in the background when Ramu, one of the craftsmen or kaarigars picks up the phone. He sounds a little harried but in rapid Hindi assures us that he is free to talk. The eldest of three children, Ramu was sent to Delhi as an eleven-year-old to learn how to make jewelry. With no family whatsoever residing in Delhi, he was forced to depend on a relative’s friend for shelter and to assist them in their ongoing jewelry business. Four years later, he moved to Mumbai as he had heard the demand was much higher for craftsmen. Almost exactly a year later, he moved back to his village in the Howrah district in West Bengal hoping for a quiet life in his hometown by doing the only thing he’d ever learned. However, he says, there was barely any work in the village and certainly very little money. This led to his final move to Chennai.

Mohit had a very similar upbringing, his wife Leela tells us. She asks if we can speak to her instead of Mohit as he can only speak in Hindi and Bengali but she can explain things better to us in English. She pauses sometimes to consult him before answering some questions, but for the most part, it seems that she knows her husband’s story almost as well as he himself does.

Born into a farmer’s family, Mohit is the youngest of his father’s many children. As a ten-year-old with an aging father, he was sent to work early, in the Howrah district in West Bengal as a jewelry maker’s assistant. When he was 16, he went to Mumbai and spent nearly 3 years there before making his way to Chennai where he spent some time working for another jeweler. In 2005, he decided to start working independently. He hired two more kaarigars, started work with one vendor first, and then another before he found himself consistently busy.

It was not only Mohit who found himself at the height of what seems to have been a boom in the jewelry industry in Chennai. Ramu reflects on his early days in Chennai and says he had enough work that he had to bring in more kaarigars. He only has two kaarigars now which he says is both due to the slowing down of orders in the past couple of years as well as the lack of kaarigars itself. Education and the advent of technology seem to have played major roles in the loss of these traditional craftsmen. Leela explains they too have had to send many of their craftsmen home due to the lack of work in the last few years. Once the shelves are full, the products have to sell for them to make more. The increase in the price of gold hasn’t been beneficial to them as it has brought down the demand, she says.

All in all, there seems to be a great amount of instability in the work schedule of the kaarigars. Some months they have many orders and then the next few months, there are almost none. The availability of the craftsmen in their units itself is yet another issue. Both Mohit and Ramu employ migrant workers, mostly from villages in Calcutta, who take turns going home for sometimes over a month each. Leela says that sometimes when they leave, it is hard to get them back in time so orders received in that time period, are often delayed.

Leela and Mohit currently live in the Kodundaiyur area in North Chennai. Mohit travels to his workshop every day in Sowcarpet, which also happens to be where the other kaarigars live. There’s a small area for them to sleep in and a kitchen where they can cook for themselves, Leela explains. Her words bring to mind the image of the crowded narrow lanes near the workshop with an overflowing garbage bin on one side and bikes parked helter-skelter on the other. Ramu’s workshop is situated similarly, and he also houses both his kaarigars in the workshop itself.

The government-mandated lockdown has been hard on all of them. There is no work being given to these units and Ramu and Mohit have no income with which to pay their craftsmen. Ramu is stoic, telling us that they are all adjusting and managing somehow. He has two children to feed and two workers to pay who are sitting idle. He admits it’s hard. But he feels the worst about the fact that his children have no school or tuition. He cannot teach them and he doesn’t want them to miss out on any part of their education.

Leela and Mohit have given their craftsmen a little money to buy enough groceries for themselves. They don’t have enough money to pay them their full salaries, especially with all the illnesses that Mohit himself has suffered over the past year but there’s just about enough to manage food. Leela feels the worst about the fact that they are stuck here with no money to send home to their families. A little money for them to send home, she says, would go a long way.

These kaarigars are not the first or the last to have to worry about making a living from this seemingly dying craft. With their commitment to hand-crafted jewelry, Ivar by Ritika Ravi hopes to provide these craftsmen with the assurance that they will always be able to utilize the skill that they spent years perfecting. The essential values of creativity, quality, and ethics extend to every aspect of the brand from manufacturing to our clients. It is keeping this in mind that Ivar by Ritika Ravi has undertaken to provide support to these craftsmen in whatever way they require-from essential commodities necessary for immediate use to monetary assistance to their families in the villages. In this difficult time, it is more important than ever to help everyone stand up and stand together.
Note: The names in this article have been changed as per the wishes of the craftsmen to protect their privacy.