Enchanting Copper coated Iron (Metal) Bells of Gujarat, India

Craft, Handloom, Art

Enchanting Copper coated Iron (Metal) Bells of Gujarat, India

Shah, Karnav

In January 2010 I formally begin my final year diploma project for craft and design with KHAMIR (Kachchh Heritage, Arts and Craft, Music and Integrated Resources) a registered organization and craft resource center situated in Kachchh, Gujarat, India. . During this trip, I was able to visit and learn about a variety of Gujarat’s craft process, techniques and tradition. I studied and enjoyed my experience with one specific product of craft – that is Metal bells. I have a faint memory of my childhood when my grandfather used to take me to the village, where I heard music while the cow’s walked on the road, now it make sense to me it was nothing other than the bell tied around their neck.

As metal craft jargon is complicated, I will attempt to present it in a way that is easy to use and handy for the reader, potential buyer, marketers, and student of crafts and more specifically for the bell metal makers. Bell metal is my core focus area for specialization for my diploma project funded by Khamir and supported by Indian Institute of Craft and Design, Jaipur. This research talks about pros and cons and opportunity within the bell metal market; moreover it also focus on some of the sensitive issue within the industry.


Brief History 
Many people know that Metal craft originated in Kachchh however it is believed that it is originated in Sindh (Now in Pakistan after the Indo-Pak partition in 1947). Currently, most of the Metal bell making work is done in two Villages – Nirona and Zura, in Gujarat by the Lohars of the Muslim community, their families have been making bells for as far back as they can trace their ancestry. The entire family often involved in the process, however I found women and children are involved in the less technical work. Women’s work is to prepare or to make basic material for instance, mud paste which can eventually provide finishing to the bell.

Use of Bell Metal
These bells are used to recognize cattle. They are tied around the cattle’s neck so the owner would know of their whereabouts. It is also used at entrance to home and as a decorative musical product, somewhat likes chimes, all the more since their tonal quality is scrupulously crafted. Craft designer and NGO’s are constantly in process to market bell metal product with innovative design and rhythm.

When I returned to Australia, I found bell metal products in one of the local store in the form of key chain and a bell with a heart with pearls surrounding it. Some designers are one step ahead! Indian designer need to develop new cost effective design which also attract attention from the target market instead of increasing production of the same product with only minor change.

Making of Bell Metal
There are fourteen sizes of bells and that are customized for different animals.

Size 0 is the smallest and size 13 the largest. The bell is made of iron and coated primarily with copper/Tamba and Brass/Pital, along with a few other metals. They are made from scrap iron sheets which are repeatedly compressed to join together and to give them the requisite shape. The metal parts are neatly joined by expert hands by a locking system without any kind of welding. Then they are coated with powdered copper with the help of mud paste and then heated in a furnace to fix the powdered copper on the surface of the bells. Once cooled and ready, a wooden piece or gong is attached to the centre of the bell for that characteristic sound which is beautifully sonorous.

The sound that emanate from each bell depends on the artisan’s skill and three factors: (1) the size and shape of the bell’s body; (2) the size and shape of the wooden strip hanging within the bell and (3) the shape and curve of the bell’s bottom rim. Denting of the bell to get the perfect pitch is also done by hand, by repeated thrashing with a hammer.

Bell making in Kutch is a wonderfully sustainable craft as the raw material is metal scrap which is purchased from junk yards and the only use of energy is in the furnace for preparing them. Even the waste generated is miniscule, comprising of small metal scrap and burnt mud.

Who make it and who sell it?
Please note that the views expressed here are from my research and understanding. The prices that have been taken into consideration are based on a comparative analysis based on available price information on the sales sites on the internet, selling prices in Australia and by export houses in India.

I found it very interesting that NGO’s generating very good money out of the selling of bell metal products because their focus of the business is not on the domestic but however export oriented.

Generally speaking, one piece of bell metal product in size 12/13 is being sold at $59 US dollar (Rs.2655 INR Rupees) and on the other side, community or individual person who makes it under the guidance of an NGO or designer charges about 250 INR rupees a day where total process may take up to 2 days that means total 500 INR Rupees labor cost that is equivalent to $11.11 US Dollar.

The material cost including sheet metal, cost of coal will be around $14 US dollars if it bought from the wholesale market. There is, generally no cost involved in mud paste as, it requires water, red Clay (sand) (that is freely available in local area – as per the statement given by lohar).

So it seems to me that the basic cost of the 12/13 size bell metal is about $25.11 US Dollar where the selling price is approximately, $59 US Dollar. Some people would argue that there may be other cost, for example GST, VAT however it is now well known that this cost paid by the customer on the top of the amount so basic margin of the seller (NGO’s, Business Organization) will be about $33.89 US dollar that means 57.44% marginal profit.

This is one of the few segments where big companies do not want to enter and it has great potential.

What about other – the Lohar’s side?
There is other side of this business that is the maker – the Lohar who are not getting paid enough. I am of the opinion, that due to lack of marketing and educational skills, they are unable to target their market, consequently intermediary like NGO’s, Organisations, or designers come into the motion and digest most of the profit.

NGO’s are meant to support local community however sometimes policy and action plan are different because policy represent compliance with legislation however action plan of the NGO’s and business represent need of growth and profitability. The Lohar has more work available however their quality of life remains unchanged due to decreasing profit. It seems to me that the Lohar makes 18.83% profit whereas Organization makes 57.44%.

Craft industry in India is weird as people who have skilled and art in them, get paid less but it is also a responsibility of government to set up training center, export fair and to work in partnership with Lohar directly in order to achieve overall success.

Another important point is payment, even if the Lohar makes $11.11 US dollar profit; they do not get their labor payment on time. Moreover material cost is invested by the Lohar whereas they borrow money from the local market to fund their bell metal work. So now when they pay off their interest, eventually they receive $10/$10.50 US Dollars. Unfortunately, Microfinance is still not easily available in rural area where they craft industry setting up for a year of years. In order to remain a part of business, Lohar has to keep invested $150US Dollar at any given time for the huge money making NGO’s, Businesses and designers.

Potential of Bell Metal Market
To support bell metal production and sell, export is mandatory and handicraft products are always in high demand all over the world however considering the statistic (2008-09) provided by Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts, India (EPCH) It has been noticed that US (27.57%), U.K (10.55%) and Germany (9.10%) are the highest importer of Indian handicraft product. Organization should conduct research in relation to the potential of bell metal products in other country where import of Indian craft still need a push for example Australia (1.32%) it is a country with plenty of craft creativity people and consumer. Business should focus on such a target market.

In a Nutshell
There are many good organization for instance Khamir who provides service and resource to conduct proper research and development for the welfare of community that engaged in handicraft, bell metal products and for their empowerment. The entire bell metal business system should be internally consistent and mutually supportive that means everybody makes profit while working but no one should aim profit by taking advantage of lack of community and knowledge access of bell metal maker, which is lohar.

Below is some photography of bell metal making that I captured during my visit to Nirona. When you percept the cost of the Lohar for making product viewing these photograph you come to know it is a skills investment rather than money however when the product being sold to market it makes good profit but allocation of the profit is inappropriate, which is the current constrained of this industry.

All photos are taken by Karnav shah.

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