The antique shops in Gulshan-2 DCC market contain a medley of fascinating things made of metal, wood, glass, and ceramic. Some of them look rustic, perhaps they are meant to look so, while the carefully polished ones glimmer under the shops' electric lights.
Not every item is an "antique", and many are actually bought from Old Dhaka's wholesale metal market in Becharam Dewri. Depending on the customer, the prices can vary anywhere between Tk500-Tk15000.
The situation is quite the opposite in corners of the country where impoverished metal artisans are struggling to retain their craft.
Till his death at the age of 60, Jitendra Modan Karmakar used to create bell metal products at his shop in Islampur Upazila in Jamalpur district. His son, Uttam Karmakar, is involved in the same line of work. Their title Karmakar suggests that they were craftsmen, yet after nearly two decades, the third generation of their family refuses to work in the same industry.
Uttam's son Udbhab, an SSC candidate, wishes to continue studying and "never get into this crafting business."
The situation was not always this grim – even 20 years ago Kansharipara in Islampur had around 1,000 households involved in the business. Now, the number has dwindled to 50 and despite an increase in the demand for bell metal products, there is always a shortage of craftsmen.
On that warm afternoon, the Kansharipara village was quiet, except for the sound of occasional CNG auto-rickshaws swooshing by. Some of the craftsmen had gone to lunch, others were sitting in the few existing workshops in Kansharipara.
The makeshift buildings, made from bamboo poles, are scattered beside the main road which leads to Jamalpur Sadr.
The artisans sit on dirt floors – into which coal stoves are carved – and its flames are controlled by a hand-bellow. The equipment consists of simple tools such as hammers, tongs and carving knives.
"The workshops become unbearable during the summer. We sweat profusely as even two electric fans do not reduce the heat. Sometimes we drink saline water to fight dehydration," said Md Obisol Sheikh, a craftsman sitting nearby.
A man in his early 50s, Obisol has been working with bell metal for the last 18 years. Once he had taken a break and gone to Dhaka. There he worked as a plumber before his boss called him back to the village.
He said, "The demand has slightly increased these days, but the pay is poor, compared to the hardship we face from sitting near the fire and working for long hours. It is just not worth it, you know?"
As he was talking, he was carving a plate and slowly giving it a fine, polished edge. His toes were pressed down onto the plate, and he was hunched over it with a carving tool. With each stroke, thin metal strips fell off. The entire process – from melting the metal to turning it into utensils – is medieval, and requires extreme physical strength, patience, and resilience.
In the shop opposite to him, four to five men were working away. Each was engaged in a different task such as making the moulds from laal maati – a kind of yellow clay – blowing air into the stove, hammering the metal lump known as guti into the desired shape, etc. It takes two to three days to complete one product.
Bell metal is sold by the kilo and each kilo is sold from somewhere between Tk3,500 and Tk5,500. Usually, to make a plate that weighs one kilo, guti weighing a kilo and 300 grams is needed. On the wholesale market, a kilo costs Tk2,000. However, old or used bell metal is sold at Tk900-950.
The raw materials or the metal scraps – which are usually brought in from Dhaka or Mymensingh – are put into the clay moulds and molten over the coal fires. It takes an hour or so for the metal to melt and then it is formed into lumps.
Md Shaheb Ali was sitting near one of the stoves and working away with a mould – his fingers digging into the soft clay. His co-worker was controlling the flame with a hand-bellow and occasionally flinching from the heat. Although it was early spring, the bare backs of both men were covered in beads of sweat.
Depending on their skill and responsibility, each of the craftsmen is paid Tk350-Tk1,000 per day. However, they do not work every day, and the flow of orders is not steady.
"I have been working for the last 20 years, learned from a master when I was young. He taught me well, and I stuck to this profession. These days, we get orders from the city, but the way you have to toil away to make one plate or glass, you do not feel like continuing with this work," he said.
His co-worker piped in, "And how much do you get back in profit? No more than 50-60 taka!"
While we were conducting the interviews and taking pictures, Udbhab was standing close to us and watching us work with curiosity. He later invited us into his house, which was right behind their family's workshop.
The house was modest – one-storey with a tin roof. Udbhab's desk was near the window – his books and stationery neatly piled on it. There were bell metal plates and trays stacked underneath two beds and on a wooden shelf.
He pointed at them, "These are waiting to be sold, but I have told Baba that I do not want to work with them at all. I will soon go to college, and then attend university, and then have an office job."
His mother joined in the conversation, she added, "Media people with cameras come and go, but our fates remain the same. Would you not write properly so that our work gains more value?"
Artist and researcher, Shawon Akand said, "We grew up eating on bell metal plates, and our mothers always used metal utensils. In fact, there were local shops which used to sell them. But with time, melamine, plastic and aluminum items flooded markets, and replaced bell metal."
He said, "One of the reasons why these products gradually disappeared from our lives, is our changing lifestyles. Bell metal is properly cleaned with ash ("chhai" in Bengali), but that has been replaced with dishwashing chemicals."
Bell metal utensils look beautiful –especially when they are maintained and polished, they shine almost like gold. According to experts, compared to their plastic and aluminum counterparts, bell metal is also healthier to use. However, a lack of interest from the artisans' side – due to low wages, strenuous work, and the dominance of cheaper alternatives – means the once-prominent industry is disappearing.