Sometimes I feel like Dhaka city has its own weather range. If you visit a certain place at different hours of the day, you will see that it changes its aura with the light and wind of the hour.
Perhaps that is why I feel as though November afternoons are picture-perfect, the ideal time to visit New Market, Chandni Chowk or Chowkbazar area - the areas my father liked to call 'the capital inside the capital.'
On one such November afternoon, when the butterscotch sun slowly turned marigold on the southwest at approximately 4:30 pm, I visited Chandni Chowk, Dhaka's famous market for women's clothing and accessories. As I walked, the traders, tired from an eventful day, still managed to throw their sales lines at me; I realised this is where the soul of the city resided.
But amongst all their yelling and clamour, I suddenly heard something new - "Metal pendant Tk1,800 per kg, metal beads Tk900 per kg- limited offer!"
"Who was buying pendants in kilograms?" I thought to myself.
I followed the voice. What I found was quite remarkable.
Heaps of metal and wooden pendants were stuffed in clear plastic bags while hooks, beads, faux flowers in huge sacks were crammed on the shelves. Customers, mostly young women, were busy shopping. And, the materials they were so invested in were mostly for making fashion or costume jewellery, not fine jewellery items.
But who are these people buying these items in a bulk?
Sadia Nasreen Kotha, a third-year university student, was screening through a mountain of German silver jewellery items at Nazarana Handicrafts, a craft shop in the capital's Gausia area. She was preparing for her sister's wedding and instead of buying fancy jewellery from shops or online shops, she decided to make her own jewellery.
"Online and Facebook shops charge at least Tk200 for just a pair of earrings. But if I buy the materials from the wholesale market, it saves a lot of money and I can customise them in endless ways," she said.
Sayantani Saha, another university graduate, started her f-commerce on Facebook last month. She sells wooden jewellery accessories on her page. Accompanied by her mother, Sayantani was looking for carved-wood jewellery items in Super Handicrafts, another crafts shop in the capital's Elephant Road area.
Same as Nasreen, Sayantani Saha said "I prefer buying in bulk, it saves a lot of money and time."
As I walked the lanes of Gausia, New Market, Chandni Chowk and Elephant road, I found more than 70 such wholesale jewellery crafts shops. And if you count the shops in Chowkbazar and Old Dhaka, the number is, at the least, greater than 100.
Apart from wholesale jewellery sets, there are more than 7,500 jewellery-crafting items sold in these shops. So it is not just an ordinary shopping space, it is where the urban jewellery designers source their crafting materials.
Beads of different shapes and colours, metal jewellery items like large pendants, beads, hooks and pins, carved wood bangles and pendants, jump rings or o-rings, faux flowers made from fabric, paper or plastic, etc. are the basic jewellery crafting items available in the market - with a wide range of prices depending on the shapes, materials and the amount purchased.
Primary customer base, price range and the pandemic
Md Azizur Rahman, the proprietor of the Nazarana Handicrafts, said that it is the university students, mostly women, who are the prime customers in this market.
"Now because of social media market platforms, students are also taking part in the business. Some buy already-made jewellery sets and others, who wish to get creative with crafts, buy pieces and bits from us and then create custom-designed ones to sell on their pages.
And with Youtube, it is now easy to learn the craft," said Rahman.
And these pieces of jewellery and craft items are primarily imported from China and India except for the wooden jewellery pieces and some metal pieces, according to the shop owners.
The shop owners also added that jewellery pieces made from wooden boards, koroi (rain tree) and sometimes mahogany wood chips were produced in Bangladesh. Some of the metal pieces also arrived from the goldsmith and silversmiths of Keraniganj, Vakurta and Savar.
Selim Parvez, the proprietor of Al-Amin shop in Chowkbazar, said that Indian oxidised and German silver jewellery are currently trending, especially due to the comeback of 1990s and 2000s era fashion amongst the youth. That is why metal (German silver, copper, oxidised) jewellery items reign in the market.
The metal pendants and earrings generally come in Jaipuri designs containing peacocks, Devi Durga and Laxmi - intricate sub-continental folk symbols, etc.
Faux flower jewellery items have also amassed quite a share in the market. Rahman pointed out, "During the pandemic, real flowers were almost impossible to get for many brides. So faux flower jewellery became popular."
Rahman claimed that apart from the thousands of items in this market, more new stuff is coming in every week.
A kilo of metal pendants and other items may cost you from Tk2,000-2,500. But if you take in individual pieces, the price range starts from Tk10-100.
And just like that, a kilo of beads may cost somewhere between Tk300-3,000. But a beaded necklace can be priced at Tk30-150.
Wooden pieces such as pendants and earrings start from Tk1-15. And thread tassels, based on their length and yarn quality, cost Tk 1-50 per piece.
Out of all the products, the shop owners seemed particularly sensitive about the faux flowers. Those were not to be touched much or photographed because they feared duplication.
Asif Kowsar, one such owner said, "Everyone in this business has the same kinds of flowers or at least can buy the materials [available in the wholesale market as everyone imports from them]. But the real creativity lies in the arrangements. We do not want anyone to copy that."
These faux flowers, made from fabric, foam, paper and plastic are priced in pieces and the price starts from Tk1 to 50.
These are the primary items for making jewellery. There are some other things too such as o-rings or jump rings, pins, hooks, earring push, and more. These are priced at Tk20-50 for a pack of 100 grams.
Rise from the pandemic ashes
"University students are our main customers and with more than a year-long lockdown, the market lost all its hustle. But luckily everything is over now, educational institutions and student halls have reopened and students have returned," said Kowsar.
Rahman and other shop owners agree on one thing that with the advancement of technology and social media platforms, this is a huge market now.
They said, "Women are the Laxmi (goddess of good fortune and money) of this business. Women are generally creative in our country. For ages they have been making Nakshi Kantha, Stitalpati and other beautiful things. That creativity is still there. They were stuck at home but now they have found a way to create things again, and earn from it."
But I found a different scene in Chowkbazar where readymade jewellery sets are sold to both wholesale and retail customers. Small business owners from other districts and upazila come to this 400-year-old city to buy wholesale jewellery for their shops.
Due to the pandemic, the Old Dhaka market lost its visitors as inter-city travel was banned. But now, all the old, pre-pandemic hustle is back in the alleys of Chowkbazar. And, businesses are trying to regain their momentum.
Finally, at around 8:00 pm that night, I decided to leave the magical market. Shop owners were preparing to close up, covering up their goods with inexpensive polyester for protection against the November mist, and some sunk into the accounts book instead. And there were still few young women bargaining for half a kilo of earring pieces at a shop, hoping that the owner would lessen the price at the closing hour.
Perhaps those girls want to open a new f-commerce page on Facebook. Perhaps they are finally taking a step to materialise their dream of starting their online business.
They will go back with those half a kilo earring pieces and 100 grams of o-rings tonight and create some beautiful earrings, and those will be the first items they would sell on their page.
Then I realised, it is our dreams that change our perception of the city and maybe this is why we still breathe in this toxic city air.