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By hands, for hands
While the sounds, the chaotic traffic, the dust and the sights of poor civic sense does depress souls like me, the hues and the variety of craft on display instantly brings in the much-needed respite. Once hailed as a well-planned city, today Jaipur fails to meet the parameters set by its own king years before. Nevertheless, the city is worth a visit.
A quintessential place where history meets contemporary, Rajasthan has always produced some of the finest craftsmen in our country. Be it home decor or personal embellishment, there is something for everyone here - block prints, tie and dye fabrics, embroidered shoes, miniature painting, kundan and meenakari work, mirror work, blue pottery, marble sculptures, puppets, leather shoes, carpets, metal wares, tiles - the list sometimes seems endless, making it a shopper’s paradise.
Having watched the Rajasthani women in their bright saris, it was the sparkling, colourful lac bangles on their wrists that first caught my attention. "Go to Maniharon ka rasta,” said one shopkeeper. One of the most popular churi or bangle lanes in Tripolia Bazaar that specialises only in lac jewellery is one must-visit place in Jaipur.
One can say these are more of tiny workshops lined up on either side of the street that could blind one with their bling. Here customer is indeed the goddess, for she gets what she wants. No one goes back without finding the right size of bangle, or the intended design. One look at your wrist and they know the size of the bangle that fits you.
Unlike other shops where one looks for the desired design in the available lot, a lac bangle shop offers you more than what you wish for. The churiwalla is like a bangle designer who designs the bangles right in front of you. The shape, the colour, and the way the stones are embedded on the bangle, can all be selected as per your liking and handed over to you in no time, something which I was totally unaware of.
The perfect fit
When the desired size of bangle was not available, the only thought that crossed my mind was, how many more shops would I have to go hunting for the right size? "Do minute mein ban jayega,” said the shopkeeper. What? Yes, with a mystified expression writ large on my face, all I kept thinking was after Maggi noodles, nothing in India was ready in two minutes, or rather claimed to be ready.
The positivity on his face puzzled me. All he had was a charcoal stove and a few wooden tools to prove his claim. The oversized lac bangle was stacked on a wooden stick and heated over hot charcoal till it became soft and then later inserted into a wooden log to get the desired shape. It was then left for cooling. Though the whole process took more than two minutes but less than 15 minutes, I was more than happy to see the finished product. It fitted me to a 'T’ now.
Once done, the bangle-maker got busy designing a plain lac bangle with sequins, that were placed on a hot metal plate kept on the charcoal stove. The ease with which he was placing them was indeed a sight to watch. "We are sending this design to our factory, where it will be mass-produced,” he explained.
So when do people buy lac bangles? "Throughout the year,” he said with a smile. Be it weddings, festivals or any other special event, buying lac bangles is a must for the women here. Most of the shops on either side of the lane have been in business for decades, some even having served the royal family. Traditionally, sellers of glass bangles, the Manihars, after whom the lane has been named, are bangle makers and dealers in lac or sealing wax. Or, should one say, master craftsmen with a unique ability to convert a seemingly lifeless-looking resin (lac) to a bright and sparkling jewel?
"These bangles need to be kept covered in paper when not in use,” says the shopkeeper. "Need not be a fancy box, even plain newspaper would do,” he adds. He even shared some tips that left me amused. If in the due course of time, one finds the lac bangles getting a wee bit tighter, do not despair. Whenever this happens, all one has to do is keep them out in the sun for some time and when a little softer, take a steel tumbler, turn it upside down, insert an old bangle that fits your wrist, and place the soft lac bangles over it and shape them till you get the desired shape. Voila! Your bangles are ready to use.
Though these bangle-makers have a dedicated bunch of customers coming to them, the only competition they have in the market is from their next-door neighbour in the lane. The cost of bangles ranges between Rs 100 and Rs 900 and can cost more depending on the number of bangles and the intricate design. Before leaving, all the bangle-maker said was, "Please ensure they don’t break, it’s not a good sign, you see.” And I nodded my head with a smile.
Lac is the scarlet resinous secretion of lac insects, of which the most commonly cultivated species is Kerria lacca. Lac insects usually come to inhabit on palas, ber and kusum trees. During their reproductive cycle, they suck sap from the branches forming a cocoon that incubates the eggs they lay, and secrete an amber-coloured resinous substance called lac.
The laborious process of harvesting involves collecting the cocoons, washing and drying them to clear them of all impurities. Later, these are sold in the local market as dry flakes.
Once the local craftsmen buy this lac from the market, it is time to shape them into bangles. The lac is melted and once it reaches a semi-molten state, it is attached to the end of a wooden stick. Then the lac attached to the wooden stick is slowly heated. The heat softens the lac, and is pressed against a metal plate with a flat wooden tool locally known as hatta. Coloured lac is introduced in this stage and the mixture is pounded.
The craftsmen now roll out the lac till the desired length and thickness are achieved. He then cuts the rolled out lac with scissors.
In order to give the bangle a proper shape and size, he inserts the completed lac bangle into a wooden shaft. Precision and attention to detail is the key in making these bangles, and requires years of practice. The finished bangle is now decorated with sequins.
The ease with which the bangle-seller shapes the lac bangle in his shop more often hides the onerous process involved in lac farming. Something that takes months together.
Nevertheless, this resinous substance continues to adorn the wrists of many women in the form of bejewelled and colourful bangles.