Where, oh where, have the goldsmiths gone?


Rajachari, a second generation gold smith at Camp Road. Pics by Laasya Shekhar

As soon as the shutters of this jewellery store in Camp Road are rolled up, customers start to trickle in. The shop across the signal on Velachery Main Road is lively and buzzing by 11 am on a Saturday morning: a middle aged woman checking gold prices and a to-be-married couple selecting a toe ring.

A narrow lane cuts across the same Velachery Main Road, on the other side of the signal. The aroma of camphor in the air is distinct and as one proceeds through the lane, the rhythmic sound of metal grows louder. Sitting inside a tiny shop, N Srinivasan, a goldsmith shapes a gold ring with a tiny hammer, in order to enlarge it. The flame of the camphor at the entrance of his shop flickers, as a whiff of fresh breeze comes in.

N Srinivasan, a goldsmith took to the family business, despite pursuing a diploma in engineering.

Unlike the jewellery store, however, the goldsmith’s shop has no customers. But that doesn’t deter Srinivasan’s will, as he utilises the time to think of new patterns. Mending ornaments is a fascination for the 39-year-old Srinivasan, who, despite owning a diploma in mechanical engineering, chose to be a goldsmith. ‘The skill challenges my creativity. I have never been bored of this profession,’ he says.

Lost era

The era when customers preferred goldsmiths to design and make their jewellery for them is gone, admits Srinivasan. That doesn’t mean goldsmiths are a lost tribe though, as those in the profession have merely changed tracks. Goldsmiths who were self employed are now working in the lavish jewellery showrooms that have a large customer base.

Remembering the heydays, Rajachari, Srinivasan’s father and a goldsmith himself says, “People prefer to go to the showrooms where ready models are on display, unlike ten years ago where individual goldsmiths thrived.”

From choosing designs to giving measurements to the goldsmiths and then waiting eagerly for the finished product, purchasing jewellery was an elaborate affair a few decades ago. “Women inspired by the ornaments of their favourite actors would ask us to replicate the same design. In a way, it enhanced creativity as well,” Rajachari chuckles. For example, a circular stone embedded ring was often donned by actress Sridevi in the movies from 1990s, remembers Srinivasan, adding how women were interested to own a similar one.

Nature is Srinivasan’s notebook; he draws inspiration from the shapes of clouds, trees and develops them into designs for an ornament. “You should have the time and energy to bring out your inner creativity. Working in a showroom gets so exhausting that you can’t really focus,” he says.

Showrooms versus street corners

N Srinivasan meticulously cleans and polishes a diamond ring.

Despite the passion of a few like Srinivasan, goldsmith shops in street corners are a rarity today. A majority of them work for the jewellery showrooms, as it promises a regular pay, even if it is less than what people in his profession used to earn during the heydays of goldsmiths.

Sankara Prasad, a 40-year-old goldsmith working in a noted jewellery showroom in T Nagar, receives a monthly salary of Rs 15,000 against the Rs 40,000 that he used to earn as an independent goldsmith ten years ago. “I am a victim of changing times. There was a time some two decades ago when goldsmiths were glorified. Now, as customers prefer big showrooms, a lot of them have either migrated to small towns or work for the showrooms,” he says.

The toolkit

A small population of goldsmiths still practise the art in the suburbs, where there is some demand. It is also for the independence enjoyed in self employment that goldsmiths like Srinivasan stick to their shops. “I might earn less than my counterparts, but I put my creativity to use other than just doing what I was told to do,” Srinivasan says.

Engaging creativity

There are a few who still put a premium on such creativity.

Ramani Sree, a software engineer sketches her thoughts on a piece of paper, as she explains the same to Srinivasan. “I have visited at least ten jewellery showrooms in the city to get a copper and silver blended bracelet for my boyfriend. None of them apparently make ornaments with a blend of copper and silver. I followed my friend’s suggestion to try my luck here and it worked,” Ramani Sree says.

For a lot of people like Ramani who are interested in customised metal jewellery in copper or silver, goldsmiths are the perfect choices. Also since they don’t have to pay hefty taxes and rents for their typically humble street corner shops, the charges are minimal as well. The ring enlargement work, that includes thumping and shaping it, costs just Rs 10 at Srinivasan’s shop. Cleaning dust from your ornaments would not cost more than Rs 10 while piercing your ears can cost Rs 50, which is more than two times what they would charge you in the jewellery showrooms.

It is, therefore, unlikely that goldsmiths will be completely wiped out. The creative designs of their ornaments and customisation at affordable costs are things that jewellery shops will rarely be able to match. Yet, it is also true that modernisation and the era of convenience has robbed them of their importance and past glory. The streets of T Nagar, Tambaram, Mylapore and Sowcarpet, where you still find a handful of such craftsmen, are silent witnesses today to the grandeur of yester-years.

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About Laasya Shekhar 287 Articles
Laasya Shekhar is an independent journalist based in Chennai with previous stints in Newslaundry, Citizen Matters and Deccan Chronicle. Laasya holds a Masters degree in Journalism from Bharathiar University and has written extensively on environmental issues, women and child rights, and other critical social and civic issues. She tweets at @plaasya.

1 Comment

  1. Handcrafted jewellry by traditional craftspeople have a beauty, depth, character and a feeling of wholeness when worn that no big-store, machine-designed “jattaak” can emulate. The problem is how to locate one such person, who also is trustworthy, in case we do not already have a “family” jeweller. If this small problem can be solved, connoisseurs will prefer to get their jewellry made by the traditional artisans.

    Also a Govt. with some imagination (a contradiction I agree!) will encourage and assist the preservation of old streets and localities that have been established for the plying of special trades and crafts. Example, the narrow streets around the temples at Mailaipuram and Thiruvallikeni in Chennai, Chikkapettai and Basavanagudi in Bengaluru.

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