On discovering an unlikely El Dorado in the city’s sprawling shanty town
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Eight-year-old Gopal grins, holding a freshly set gold chain up against the light of a welding flame setting another. His eyes gleam from the shimmer of gold reflected in them. Originally from Bengal, he joined Kanai’s gold workshop at Sakinabai Chawl as a handy boy a year ago. The workshop has five people working and living in a five by five foot loft. Under a low wattage bulb these karigars are melting gold ingots on a primitive coal stove beneath a chimney, pouring the molten gold into plaster of Paris moulds shaped as per jewellery design, and using a machine to pull the gold out into glimmering threads. Kanai, who now has his own workshop, started off as a worker himself 15 years ago. He employs only men known to him or his family from villages around his hometown.
Each of the 500 odd workshops in Sakinabai Chawl, one of Dharavi’s oldest, follow the same rules of trade. All are headed by ex-karigars, who get those known to them to live and work with them. This springs an ethnic mix from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, who can mostly talk only in their mother tongue. Tamil karigars, who’ve been here since 60 years form 80 per cent of the workers. The Bengalis, who came in 15 years ago come second in number. Each karigar excels in traditional jewellery from his region, but has learned to adapt to new trends too. “While newer designs can be executed easily on machines, traditional ones can only be done by hand,” Ram Chandran, a goldsmith from Tamil Nadu, explains.
The fact that almost everyone in the chawl is a goldsmith leads to security, prompting most workshops to leave doors open to let in light (some don’t have doors), with a minimum of Rs 2,00,000 worth of gold inside. A walk down the narrow lanes brings forth a surrealist’s El Dorado. In dingy rooms, men in lungis and vests fold golden threads (as women would a sari) or melt gold on a fireplace or polish a heap of jewellery in a stained plastic basin.
All the jewellery made is as per job work commissioned by the 100 odd jewellery stores lined outside Dharavi Main Road. “Gold is the primary investment of the poor, who don’t know about mutual funds and cannot afford diamonds or property,” a shopkeeper says. So many of the shops have shifted focus from the heavy expensive South Indian jewellery earlier made to suit the slum’s Tamil population to lighter cheaper North Indian ware — affordable to Dharavi’s poor, or rather its elite.
“I have given two interviews before this,” Bholanath, another Bengali goldsmith, says. And many a media person and writer have exclaimed over Sakinabai Chawl as being exemplary of the Dharavi’s entrepreneurship, the gold in itself a metaphor for prosperity. Others have decried the unsafe and inhuman working conditions, adding child labour for effect. But unsafe working conditions and child labour is a present state of affairs which cannot be addressed without an eye on the future. It is admirable that the population accumulated here have capitalised on two of the world’s oldest constants of value – gold and property. Yet labour as a resource still has a long way to go; this is, after all, Dharavi. The uneducated artisans of Sakinabai Chawl accept the pittance they receive as payment (around Rs 4,000 profit per workshop per month) for being unable to market their skills anywhere beyond the Dharavi Main Road stores. A training programme incorporating languages and marketing, beyond the simplistic vocational training touted by NGOs might change this. Just as education might grant many a bright child like Gopal, a worker here, a direction to shine in.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/9phh