Making Space: Sensing Place - Metal Smithy in Bangladesh
The residencies took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh during February 2010, where Thurle Wright (Paper Artist) and I were generously hosted by Britto Arts, and at Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, during March 2010. The artists Tarun Gosh (Painter) and Tapan Das (Rickshaw Artist) from Bangladesh and Lokesh Ghai (Textiles) from India all visited the UK between April and June of the same year. During this time there were educational workshops and projects with both the V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire, UK. The project culminated in a touring exhibition of the work produced as a result of the project.
As a practicing metal-smith my interest in the Craft Fellowship followed several threads:
Craft objects can take us on journeys, both into our past and around the world, they hold narratives that describe how, through time humans have traded, and migrated across the globe. Craftspeople produce objects that enhance, celebrate and record the events and rituals in our lives. Their arte-facts provide a point of reference for how we live and what our belief systems and values are. They tell stories of how we invent, build and construct with the materials and equipment available to us. The MS:SP project offered an opportunity to reflect on how craft practices, and craftspeople are placed within their cultures and how that role may be changing, it was an opportunity to obtain a broader picture of how craft ‘fits’.
I have always been interested in how things are made and constructed. When looking at an object I see the process of its making. This interest in ‘structures’ and the way things are made, by utilizing the properties and characteristics of a material, extends into my practice and is informed by how craftspeople invent and make. The project offered an opportunity to see, first hand, craftspeople making and inventing with material, the places and spaces in which they work, their skills and the processes they use.
Metal is a material I enjoy: the way it moves, its resistance, its feel, its weight, how it changes when heated, its shine, its smell, the sounds of it when worked…. Initial research for the fellowship identified specific things that I felt had a direct connection to my own practice as a metalworker and which I would welcome the opportunity to see and learn more of during the residencies. These included the stunning coiled silver neckpieces or torques called Vadlo or Vaidlah from Kutch in Gujarat, India and the ear pieces, sometimes of known as ‘Nagali’ earrings, which again come from the same region and make use of coiled gold or silver wire.
During my time on the fellowship I was particularly drawn to the woven metalwork baskets, bronze casting and brass working traditions of Bangladesh as exciting areas of metalworking practice to explore and learn more of.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world. It is predominantly a rural country, with around 80 percent of the 160 million people living in rural areas. There are stark contrasts between life in the cities and life in the villages. Rural areas are often isolated with limited access to infrastructure or services. Much of the country is low-lying delta floodplain, prone to extreme seasonal flooding and cyclones during the wet season. Despite this hardship, Bangladesh has a rich and vibrant culture, including metalworking traditions that can be traced back as early as the first century BC.
There is sometimes a wealth that comes from poverty or hardship, the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people, particularly craftspeople, working with limited materials and resources, can often result in the production of highly sophisticated, informed and creative solutions to problems. During the course of the fellowship I have been excited and inspired by seeing creative communities and examples of the honest, inventive and creative ways in which craftspeople go about making work, with what seems like little or no resources.
During my stay in Bangladesh I had read about a small hamlet a short distance from the capital Dhaka where craftsmen had developed a process of collaborative hammer-working to produce brass, bronze and bell metal products; school and temple gongs, ritual dishes and engraved trays both for the home and tourist markets.
With help and guidance from Shahriar Shaon, an artist and film editor, Shawon Akand, from CRAC (The Centre for Research on Art and Culture), Mokadesur Ahmed Tushil and Britto Arts I was able to visit the workshops to see if this craft tradition was still being practiced.
Our journey took us by bus, auto-rickshaw, cycle-rickshaw and by foot. With each stage the pace of travel slowed, we came closer to the landscape and the surroundings became gentler on the eye and the ears.
Passing by people working in paddy fields, we walked along narrow pathways raised above the fields, heading for a small hamlet perched on a high earth bank. The man-made mound on which the cluster of buildings sat had been built to protect the properties from the annual floods during the wet season.
Each year, during the dry season, the families dig clay and deposit it on the mound to raise the height or increase the size of the plot, in an attempt to protect the property from the rising waters during the monsoon rains.
We were drawn by the sound of hammering to a small workshop where a group of men were forging out flat discs of metal, stretching them to the required diameter, cutting the rims and forming the edges.
To get the initial disc of metal, the men cast a brass or bronze 'bell-metal' mix called 'pitol', from scrap. The scrap metal is sourced from old arte-facts and objects or is recycled waste and off-cuts from their own manufacturing process. The metal is melted in small crucibles made from river clay mixed with jute, rice husk and sand to give it its refractory properties and pre fired in the same charcoal and coke furnace used to smelt the scrap metal. The molten metal is poured into open shallow molds to make flat circular ingots approximately 15-20cm in diameter.
Stretching these cast discs to the required thickness and diameter for the finished products is demanding work. Brass and the majority of its alloys are not very malleable and are hard to manipulate. The metal is prone to splitting and cracking when hot forged, especially if overheated or overworked. The men work together to share the physical workload.
In the workshop the men sit themselves around the edge of a sunken hollow. In the centre of the pit is a large metal post or ‘stake’ set deeply into the ground. Beside the depression is a coke hearth or ‘forge’ formed by a raised earth platform protected by sheets of corrugated iron and earth walls. A hand powered fan or ‘blower’ feeds air into a ‘pool’ of burning coke, increasing the temperature of the fire. Heating the metal makes the material more plastic, allowing it to be stretched and formed more easily.
Together, the men forge a stack of up to 8 of the ingots at a time working together to stretch the hot metal into thin sheets.
One of the craftsmen is responsible for managing the fire, heating up a pile of the cast metal discs to a dull red and transferring this stack from fire to stake. Whilst the rest of the team are hammering he carefully, using long tongs, controls the stack of discs; rotating and positioning them over the stake to get maximum effect from the hammering. In metalworking terminology this process of heating a piece of metal and then hammering it until it has cooled is called ‘forging’ and each period of working the metal when hot until it is cold is called a ‘heat’. Between ‘heats’ the stack of discs are re-ordered to ensure that they are all heated and stretched evenly.
See an overview of the workshop and the processes here:
The way the men work is quite magical to see. The hammer-work develops in rotation as more and more of the men start to hit the metal. As each individual adds to the hammering sequence his first blow is struck then he misses a beat, indicating his addition to the order of blows, he then joins in at the faster pace. The finish is also signaled by a change in sequence of the hammering, some blows are placed to the centre and sometimes the direction or order of the blows is reversed or changed. The hammering continues until the metal is no longer hot enough to work, and the discs are returned to the hearth to be re-heated. The process repeats until the desired size or thickness is achieved.
The rhythm of the work is musical and the men use long and elegant hammers, designed to allow lots of blows to the metal in close proximity to each other and in quick succession. It is like a musical performance. Sound is key to the process, the sound of the metal and the stake varies from a dull ‘thud’ to a higher pitched ‘ping’ guiding both the individual with the tongs as to the angle and position of the plates he holds, as well as the craftsmen with the hammers and where they should place their blows.
Between each ‘heat’ the hammer workers sit and talk or undertake other tasks in the processing of the metal, such as cutting, forming, cleaning or engraving the discs.
When forged to the correct diameter the discs are trimmed and filed to a more uniform shape. The edge of each disc is marked out with a line from a set of dividers. An individual holds the marked disc at an angle on the side of a cast metal stake and positions a chisel, made of tool steel, along the line. The chisel is ‘handled’ with a piece of split bamboo, bound with wire. Another person acts as the ‘striker’, hammering the chisel into the brass plate to cut the edge. Again there is a fluid rhythm to the work, demonstrating both precision and co-ordination between the two men.
The edges of the discs are filed and then formed either using a hammer over a smaller stake or working the metal into a depression formed in a stone, set into the workshop floor.
Other workshops existed in the same hamlet and we followed the other sounds of metal being hammered and worked to discover a second workshop. Like the first, this space was of a timber construction clad with corrugated iron for a roof and with an earth floor raised above the surrounding ground.
Here there were examples of the crucibles, some filled and ready to be capped and heated for the casting process, others stacked ready to be filled. Stacks of large ceramic discs stood close by, these are the moulds where molten metal is poured to make the initial discs.
Here the men were also working on the production of bowls and discs, there was clear evidence of the stages of production around the space, with small groups focused on a range of different tasks in the process – some were forging in the same way as those had been in the previous workshop, stretching out the cast discs of metal.
Others were ‘planishing’ the cast discs, knocking out the worst of the dents,
and evening out the metal by hammering the plates onto the flat surface of a large stake.
A part of the group were lined up along one side of the workshop engaged in scraping the surface of the discs smooth.
Sometimes the scraping was by hand; using hardened steel blades set into a bamboo shaft. The sharp scraper is steadied by a steel bar both of which the craftsman holds together in his left hand and which are separated between his fingers and tensioned against the edge of the disc in his right.
As he works the scraper over the surface of the disc he releases the tension in his grip in the right hand, allowing the scraper to move, in a controlled way, with each successive movement, across the disc and towards the centre.
The disc is held in position by three pieces of material. The first is a small stake in the ground with a slot cut into the diameter; this holds the base of the disc. The second is a stick, which again has a slot cut into it, and this supports the top of the disc. This is held in place by the weight of the craftsman’s left leg bearing down upon it. The third is a larger lump of wood / a brick or pad of cloth which sits behind the disc and supports it from flipping sideways or slipping backwards. The whole of the craftsman's body is used to secure and work the piece. The workload is very physical and the men's heels wear impressions into the ground. The scraping starts at the edge and moves toward the middle, the disc is rotated to work across the whole of the surface, producing interesting patterns as the marks, from the scraping, catch the light.
The shavings from the brass that accumulate on the floor are collected and re-melted to make more discs. The scrapers are honed using emery type grit spread out on hardwood logs beside the workers. The men, as in most workshops I have seen in Bangladesh, work on the floor.
Sometimes the scraping was done on an improvised lathe where the disc of metal is attached to a block of wood, which is, in turn, attached to machine made from bicycle components set into the workshop floor or attached to the structure of the workshop.
Much of the technology here is based upon work without electricity, only around 19% of the rural population has access to electricity, and even in the cities this is often interrupted by power-cuts.
The metal is held in place using heated plant resin as an adhesive. The resin is softened over a small ceramic kiln filled with burning charcoal, again heated with the aid of a small, hand powered, blower.
When in position, the disc (and the resin) is quickly cooled using damp cloths. The resin hardens as it cools and this secures the disc in position. A stick with a metal ferrule at its end is used to make the disc run true. The left foot controls this, as both hands are occupied with the disc and the lathe. Once secured and centered a scraper is passed across the surface of the disc as it rotates.
See more of the workshops here:
In the workshops there were between 6 - 9 men working together. They work collaboratively in order to be able to afford the costs of the materials and equipment and to share the physical workload. Producing the plates takes quite a lot of time and effort.
The men in the first workshop said that the dishes sell by weight, between 1000Tk - 500Tk per Kg depending upon the metal % mix. Plates weigh between 1 - 2 kgs,
The workshops sell their products through an agent, who sells at the wholesale markets in Dhaka. The agent provides the metal and pays the workers a making charge. The workers provide the tools and the fuel. In our limited discussions the comments from the craftsmen focused on the lack of machinery available to them.
I was struck by the ingenuity and invention, utilizing limited resources and collaborative working to overcome restrictions and limitations in the making process. It was clear that the metalworking processes these men used had developed in response to their environment and resources. There was very little wastage of materials through reuse and recycling. There was a beauty to the sound and the ‘performance’ of the metalworking process, but there was also an immense amount of time and labour that went into the making of these objects. The lack of power tools and mechanical processes made me rethink what the term ‘hand made’ really means and what the value of craft skill was and whether this method of manufacture was sustainable. It’s clear that Bangladesh is changing, I wonder whether the cultural shift in the capital and across the country will change the demand for the skills of these men and the metalwork they produce and if or how these skills could adapt to those changes. In this hamlet I had seen two workshops supporting around 15 craftsmen, the area had once been a centre for metalworking and within living memory there had been around twenty workshops, in the area. It is clear that people are leaving the villages and the traditional trades, and moving to the city for other work. The age range of the men was also significant - mid to late 30s and older, suggesting that not many younger men were following their family traditions and taking up these craft skills.
It was clear that the role of making here had much wider concerns, many of which go beyond the production of a product and into something deeper within the fabric of this community; here making touched on the mechanisms that help to bond a community. Watching the men work I was reminded of the stories of women embroidering or weaving together and singing or telling stories. Craft has a social role and purpose within the community and can serve to sustain a culture, maintaining bonds through sharing stories and activities as well as provide a means of generating income for the group - outside of farming and the production of food (Rice and Jute).
The whole visit to the workshop and seeing the men work was a very special experience that will stay with me, I don’t think I will look at a rolled sheet of metal in the same way again!