In an old wooden box where I keep some bits of jewellery, is a tiny brooch of a dove, with an equally tiny disc engraved with a R, hanging from its beak.
It was made long ago, at the insistence of the family goldsmith, Manmatha Babu, for my elder daughter when she started Montessori, so that a hanky could be pinned on to her school dress. That, of course, never happened but it did get happily worn, elsewhere.
India’s relationship with jewels and jewellery, is of course legendary but what often gets lost in the buzz, is the quiet presence of generations of humble and incredibly skilled goldsmiths (known as shyakras in Bengal) including the family goldsmiths, behind it all.
I came to know Manmatha Babu, for an all too brief period, at the tail end of the ’70s, when he was already on the verge of retirement.
Always clad in a spotlessly clean, white dhoti kurta, his benign face was crowned by a shock of white hair (some of which also grew from the lobes of his ears)and characterized by a permanent, gap toothed, most infectious grin.
His ties with the family spanned several decades when joint families were still the norm and the women of the house were young wives or daughters, about to be married. When the girls moved to their new homes,he became a fixture there too and gradually, a part of the larger family as well.
Manmatha Babu would arrive at the family home in the late afternoon, when the women of the house could sit undisturbed. Squatting comfortably on the floor, he would pull out of a sturdy, cloth jhola( bag) much thumbed, foreign design magazines and show his own designs, too. Sometimes, the ladies would sketch out their own ideas of a desired piece, to be refined and metamorphosed into a piece of glittering beauty, by him.
The main stuff, the jewellery ordered and being delivered, would however, be fished out from inside the hidden recesses of his kurta, wrapped in the double folds of his dhoti around his waist, neatly packed in a plastic package.
Since Manmatha Babu travelled from faraway Howrah, to visit his clients in different parts of the city , he invariably carried enough gold, so this method helped him to remain both safe and inconspicuous. There was some speculation that in the early days he carried a small pistol for self defence but it was never confirmed by him, and generally remained a subject of stifled giggles, given his meek appearance.
Out of the plastic wrapped packet would tumble the ordered pieces, each folded intricately, in bright pink tissue paper. Any unused gold or stones, from an old piece given to him, would be returned and such was the trust and respect shared, that these were always accepted unquestioningly, although he always carried a small jewellers brass scale( dari palla), a small black touchstone( koshthi pathar) and a jewellers eye, with him.
The only problem he faced, as he once confessed with a big grin, was when one lady wore a beautiful piece crafted by him and the other ladies belonging to the same family, would want a similar one. This would lead to ruffled feathers especially if it had been self designed by the lady commissioning it, who claimed copyright infringement.
In my father’s ancestral home in Bhowanipore area of south Kolkata, the family shyakra was simply called Manindra Shyakra.
Years later, in the mid 80’s, when a glittering jewellery shop came up in the same neighborhood, run by one Mr.G. hugely popular with the elite and filmstars for his dazzling designs, he was identified by my mother, who had seen Manindra Shyakra as an young bride, as his son.
Mr. G. however,chose to work as a jeweller, using his inherited skills, to guide his team of shyakras, who had their own workshops in and around the area, providing them with regular livelihood too.
In the not so distant past, when gold was cheap and freely available, there were enough Manmatha Babus, in circulation.
Making jewellery, then as now, represented social and economic security but even more so then for the women, when there were hardly any working women earning independantly.
Sadly, with gold prices rocketing and stringent controls kicking in, family shyakras are rare now, with most opting to work for the security provided by jewellery and silver shops.
Some, like Manmatha Babu, have encouraged their sons to move away from the craft but the tradition of finely, skilled work continues to be handed down through the generations, with the shyakras prized everywhere for their artistry and eye for delicate detail.
In fact, for some of the more privileged classes, making jewellery, was almost as a pastime, then. The family shyakras, pandered to their patrons, conjuring up almost anything that caught their fancy, other than jewellery, in silver or in gold.
Many Bengali shyakras, have migrated in huge numbers to jewellery hubs in India and the mid East, where they are sought out for their versatility and hard work, often replacing local workers there.
Migrant workers, however, with no-one to safe guard their interests, they have been hit hard by the lockdown, with many returning temporarily, to their ancestral villages and homes but confident of re joining their places of work, soon. It’s a hard life, with many becoming victims of exploitation but where jewellery is concerned, the Bengali shyakra is ready to roam the world.
The Manmatha Babus of yore, may have bid adieu but as long as gold holds its charm, the shyakras will continue forging the gilded dreams of millions.