1900 - 2016

Thathera Metal Craft

Jaipur Virasat Foundation

The exhibit traces the development of the Thathera metal craft in Jaipur from the 18th to the 21st Century.

When Jai Singh laid the foundations of his new capital, Jaipur, in 1727, he emphasized the importance of creating a vibrant, multicultural city high on the livability index to attract scholars, entrepreneurs, artists musicians and entertainers, aware that the aggregate work of this creative class will be the primary drivers of economic growth and prosperity in his new capital. A group of craftsmen called thatheras, were one such group of artisans who were invited to Jaipur from the old capital of Amber. On settling in the new capital, these craftsmen fabricated a range of inexpensive everyday objects in copper, brass and tin. 

The design techniques and choice of materials of Jaipur’s Thatheras was shaped by the preferences of Hindu/Jains and Muslim communities that settled in the city. While Muslims preferred to use tin-plated (kalai) copper utensils, Hindus had a preference for brass vessels.

Other than creating objects that filled an important part of the domestic life, the craftsmen specialized in making ritualistic objects for temples and mosques.

The brassware industry evolved in the city in a way that while the craftsmen were held together by an underlying unity based on apprenticeship. Each family within the thathera community specialized in making different objects or providing a specific service.

The increased division of labor within the community over time led to an increase in the average scale of their workshop, and area of work. The community workplace today stretches up to a kilometer long urban strip - called 'Thatheron Ka Raasta'.

Metal objects designed by Thathera craftsmen in everyday use in the city.

Mr Jaswant Singh, chef at City Palace Jaipur records how metal objects designed by thathera Craftsmen were used and maintained in the Palace Kitchen.

Objects in Focus
The needs associated with the objects Thatheras made were either physical, psychological or symbolic. The designs of these objects may be called evolutionary in nature. In other words, each of these objects was the creation of artisans, who over several centuries looked at previous versions of those objects, made minor alterations  to what had come before, and reworked those until the end result suited the needs of their time. The utilitarian vessels  found in the market in the past were rarely ornamented because they were required to be scoured with mud. But the shapes of these vessels were still extremely graceful and were imbued with exquisite visual power.

Most Indian households used Degchi pots made in copper and brass to cook food.

The practical and visual characteristic include an upward taper - which makes the object easy to to grab and lift; and ensures that the steam condenses and rolls down the walls - keeping the flavour and aroma of the food intact.

A large vessel built in brass was used to prepare milk-based sweets for large community gatherings organized in the city.

A multi-purpose globular vessels was used to retrieve, carry, store and pour water in homes, in temples and for travel. The shape of the lota facilitates the flow of water at the angles of typical usage, and the elegantly reflexed rim enables a comfortable hand grip. Since the object was - and still is - associated with several daily rituals and channels the need of the user - several verses are written in Urdu and Sanskrit to express the positive experiences the object encourages:

Preet karo to aisi kije, jaise lota dor, gala fasaaye aapna, paani piye koi aur.

'Be like a lota, water container - while it has a rope or a thread tied around its neck, it yet quenches the thirst of others. This is love and affection.'

A flat brass tray with a rim used to make unleavened bread is a staple in most Indian kitchens. The functional characteristics of the vessel includes a diameter modulated by the typical quantity of dough utilized by an average family over a course of a day. The rim of the utensil is curved and angulated to enable circular motion facilitating proper kneading - and the angle of the sides are in a perfect angle to enable maximum force when the dough is pushed under and over. The paraat also serves as a platter or tray for a range of objects - from lumps of jaggery to earthen lamps for festivals.

A series of utensils traditionally used to stage a feast in an Indian household.

A brass or copper drinking vessel was used for communal use mostly by the hindu community. The community had strict taboos about physical contact and ritual purity in their caste hierarchy. Hence the sharp-long pipe, a distinct feature of the vessel ensured that a person does not come in direct contact with the water - ensuring the “purity” of water consumed.

Storing large amounts of grains and liquids in Brass utensils was a common practice in Indian households. While the anti-bacterial properties of metals only came to be known later. People observed through observation that dry food and liquids stored in metal vessels remained intact as compared to in other materials.

Surahi, a ceremonial water utensil is used for ritualistic purposes by the Muslim community. It has a similar structure to a lota - but with an additional spout. The Quran prescribes a man to perform all ablutions in running water - hence the water when poured out of the spout (tonti) is symbolically considered running.

In the Nagara style (North Indian) temples, a kalasha is an inverted vase shaped piece that crowns the temple tower. The kalash is made in brass to provide a visual contrast to the stone. Moreover, a Hindu temple is rife with symbolic meaning - the temple itself represents the image of the body of the universe - in that context the kalash, pinnacle, symbolises the golden sun resting on the peak of a mountain.

The word is derived from the term deep - meaning diya and sthampa meaning stand. The object is erected on special occasions to place a single lamp within temple or a home.

The instrument is used for ritual music - keeping beat with the chorus. It is also symbolic of invoking the gods and warding off negative forces.

Traditional process and tools
The metals were subjected to two basic processes - forging and and casting. The raw material used for the production processes were either metal ore or scraps. Metal ore was transported into the city from surrounding regions. An important function in the sourcing of metal scraps belonged to tribes  - who moved in the countryside collecting old vessels from place to place.

Base Tools

Hammering Tools

Supporting Tools

Colonial Transitions
During the colonial period, the processes of the Thathera craftsmen underwent certain transformations  - as scrap was substituted by metal sheets whenever possible, manual lathes were replaced by power-operated machines. Tinning by hand was replaced by power operated ones. These phenomenons led to a certain  deskilling of manual processes; however the Arts and Crafts movement and the Rajasthan school of Arts brought to the fore a different aesthetic that created  enough room for hand skills like: polishing, casting, engraving lacquer; skills which could not be reproduced in machinery.  The School of Art ( Madarsa-e-Hunar),  opened by Sawai Ram Singh was directed by British officials posted in Jaipur state who were amateurs but enthusiasts of the crafts movement in England. While these officials were in opposition to the effects of industrialisation on Indian craftsmanship - they saw themselves as part of the grand design of bringing progress to the colonies, and saw drawing skills and industrial design as essential to revive the crafts of the city “By combining scientific and intellectual progress with proficiency in manual skill, the art schools are much more calculated to raise the social and moral conditions of the natives of this country” Dr Fabeck, Principal of the Jaipur School of Art.

The school of arts in Jaipur introduced a number of brassware courses. The objects that were designed in the School of Art had ornamentations and patterns that were not very different from what might have appealed to the Mughals and the local ruling elite. But when applied to European shapes and forms - they transmitted a certain global reach and colonial power.
These objects were made popular in England by the Arts and crafts Movement and were consumed in already over-furnished Victorian Drawing rooms

Hybrid objects, built in Indian and Western Aesthetic sensibilties during the Colonial Period.

Current Scenario
In the post- independence scenario the evolution of a modern market system severed the old patron-client market network - limiting the craftsmen’s access to evolving product ideas. Moreover with industrialization low cost, cheaper lighter and easier to clean stainless steel, plastic and aluminium utensils displaced brass, bronze and copper utensils. This further weakened the client and craftsman relationship. With the lack of knowledge of markets artisans become increasingly dependent on middle-men who pocketed the actual surplus, making the artisans poorer. The other problems faced by the Thatheras in the city include poor working conditions, lack of evolution in the manufacturing processes, lack of access to quality raw materials and design references. All these factors have led to a diminishing of pride with the younger generation seeing no future in learning and following the craft of their forefathers. Moreover because of fall in prestige and  wages, men are leaving the industry and the number of craftsmen have reduced from 88 families in  2004 - to a mere 15 families in 2016.
Looking Forward
In context of contemporary India moving forwards, a new generation of product and furniture designers  are reinterpreting the traditional idiom of the thatheras to create forms that are modern, yet unique. The objects designed by these designers, while having an Indian imprint have a certain universal appeal - making these objects global and local at the same time. Jaipur based designer, Ayush Kasliwal combines  industrial design with India’s native artisanal traditions. Kasliwal design philosophy is rooted in the Indic  belief that art/craft/design should be integrated into our lives, our  daily ritual -  and make everyday life more beautiful and efficient. Shamit Das, Sughanda Chaudhury Das and  Tauseef Rehman of studio Saswata are  young product and furniture designers in Jaipur who are taking traditional crafts from strength to strength. The studio combines Indian aesthetic tradition with new technology and material innovation, bringing a distinctive design idiom to the fore.

The studio has designed a series of solid side tables - called the Kalasha Side Tables. These tables, which can also be used as stands are differentiated because of the distinct profile of their shafts that draw reference from a kalasha capping a temple spire, traditionally designed by Thathera craftsmen.

Anantaya studio has teamed up with Thathera craftsmen to create a collection of a trio of hand-hammered bowls. The gently curving silhouette of the structure is reminiscent of the Hindu God Shiva’s third eye of enlightenment - and hence the name Tri- Netra ( Tri meaning three, and netra meaning eye). The three pods when strung together with hanging rods serve as an installation, and when used individually as vases or bowls.

Sasawata Design Studio worked along with the Thathera craftsmen and created lamps- called the Kalash Pendant Lamps. The design of the lamp is inspired from a traditional temple finial. The designers have also experimented with a patina finish on copper to achieve the blue shade on the lamp surface.

Jaipur Virasat Foundation
Credits: Story

Project Team:
Ayush Bakliwal
Priyamvada Golcha
Tanushree Agarwal

Project Consultants:
Rima Hooja
Vinod Joshi

All the Thathera craftsmen of Jaipur.
Ayush Kasliwal, Anantya
Prem Chand Patel, Thathera Craftsman
Sumeir Singh
Tahir Khan Buksh, Fine Art Palace
Tauseef Rehan and Shamit Das, Studio Saswata

Credits: All media
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