Sherpa Hossainy's Blog

The dwindling legacy of metal handicrafts

Posted in Bangladesh, Business, Dhaka, Industries by Sherpa Hossainy on January 31, 2011

Published in The Daily Star’s Business section (in the special page — Business Life) on 31st January 2011

Read the article on The Daily Star website

Digital print edition

Jerry Huang, a Chinese tourist, was having a hard time bargaining with a shopkeeper for an articulately designed showpiece.“This should not cost Tk 2,500. The prices are crazy here,” he grunts. Well, the seller seemed reluctant to let this item go for less than what he asked.

The fancy metal handicrafts shops at Gulshan 2 DCC market are bound to catch one’s attention as they walk along. The shops, neatly lined up one after another, display thousands of handicraft items, mostly made of metal — brass or bell metal — and some made of wood.

Replicas of deities are displayed at a metal handicrafts shop in Dhaka.

The utensils, replicas of Buddha and deities like Shiva, Durga and Ganesh, old compasses from ships, binoculars, daggers, dice to make jewellery, lamps, padlocks that looks like fish, jewellery boxes, replicas of swans, horses and elephants, wooden chests, and even items that make one’s head spin to predict their possible use — it’s all there. Most might not have any utility at all other than being a showpiece only for their immaculate designs and unique looks.

The foremost thing that would strike anyone there is the insignificant number of customers inside the shops. Most shop owners are sitting idly, reading newspaper or gossiping. Some shops do have customers inside, but they seem to be interested in just window-shopping, their eyes glittering with the exclusivity of the products.

The so-called “antique market” of Dhaka gets its seemingly overpriced items mainly from the scrap metal market at Mitford in old Dhaka. All scrap metal products from all around Bangladesh, primarily from Chittagong and Narayanganj, come to this market. Some products also come from Dhamrai, where production of brass handicrafts, especially replicas of deities, takes place. Even shop owners sometimes patch up the different parts of broken items to make a complete item.

There are brokers who go around collecting different items from the market, and selling here.

Jewel Majumder, a shop owner, says, “There is a scarcity of good stuff nowadays. Seldom do we collect good products and there are not too many customers either.” Customers are leaning towards lighter products such as glass, ceramic and plastic, rather than brass or bronze these days, he says.

“It’s even hard to find brass, let alone find broken and scrap piece of brass. If I ask for Tk 1,500 for a half broken brass glass, would you buy it?” says Majumder. “Some people would say that I’m crazy. How can I make them understand that even scrap brass costs like Tk 450- Tk 500 now-a-days?” he says.

The shop owners rued the fact that business is dwindling day by day. “We don’t have any business. We try our best to get rid of the existing products quickly and usually try not to bring in anything new,” says Swapan, another shop owner.

Brass products had quite a big industry in Nawabganj and these days, 90 percent are now closed, says Md Shahjahan. “The main reason is that there is no demand and no sales because they are heavy and people look for light utensils.”

Different exhibits are up for sale at a so-called marine antiques shop in Chittagong.

“People don’t understand that you don’t lose money by purchasing bronze and brass products. It is almost similar to buying something next-to-gold,” says Shahjahan.

“I’m just saying from my experience. If you buy bronze and brass products, the resale value is always high, maybe close to the purchase price. But this option is not there for glass or plastic products.”

These deity replicas are trademarks of Dhamrai production. These products have been in the making since the British era and are limited among a specific group of manufacturers because of the preciseness of the work. The problem is that there are only a few people who make them and they don’t let other people know about the process, says Shahjahan.

“If they did, there could be mass production and prices would drop. They only want to make profits by themselves, even if they are hurting the business,” he says.

“Big brands, like Aarong and Jatra, are also selling brass products now and customers usually don’t want to come to our shops now.”

The pricey items are obviously out of the reach for the middle-income groups, so these handicrafts mostly go to the high-ups and expatriates living in Dhaka. “Of course, rich people mostly buy these items. The poor can’t fancy buying a brass glass paying Tk 1,500. It’s illogical,” says Shahjahan. Almost 60 percent of customers are foreigners, he adds.

When a ship comes to Chittagong Port for breaking, concerned authorities give clearance after inspection that there are no explosives or other harmful objects. After issuance of a certificate, the owner gets ready to break the ship.

The shipyard owner contracts different people to dismantle different parts of the ship — wooden items, electronics items, and wires. Gradually, after different contractors take away different parts, the ship becomes ready to be cut and various products of this handicrafts market come out, intact or broken.

Different exhibits are up for sale at a so-called marine antiques shop in Chittagong.

Shop owners blamed a lack of ship breaking as the cause behind a low volume of sales. Shahjahan says, “Ship imports are even low now because of some ban on environmental issue.”

“When I can’t buy food for seven days and I’m hungry, there is no time to care about the environment.”

“Some people are sabotaging the ship breaking industry for the sake of the environment. There are always and will be risks of harming the environment. There were times when burnt mobil was thrown into the water but I don’t think anyone does it now. As far as I know, now they scrape it and put it under the soil.”

He says ship importers are capable of breaking the ship in a non-hazardous way. “If they are allowed to do it on a large scale, there would be a surge in metal input — copper, brass, bronze and iron. But if the ships are not allowed to come, what can we do?”

Shahjahan also says the ship import ban is hurting the re-rolling mills, which are shutting down due to dearth of scrap metal. That will also hurt the construction industry, he adds.

Sometimes, handicrafts sellers put together the parts of different items to produce a new one. The recasting process requires lathe machines and casting factories.

Majumder complains, “You have to make craftsmen understand how you want the item to be made, so that it can be sold. If you want to go to old town for all that, your whole day is lost in transportation.”

“Who will take the responsibility? I don’t know what fate has in store for us,” Majumder says, as he started to dust a brass bowl.

My close encounter with a hartal

Posted in Bangladesh, Dhaka by Sherpa Hossainy on January 1, 2011

It was the night before the countrywide hartal called by the main opposition – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). I finished my work and went up to the Daily Star’s ninth-floor canteen to have a cup of tea and some puris to gratify my ever-hungry stomach. While pondering all the possible routes and modes of transport home, canteen-boy Arif came in running and shouted, “Fire! Fire!! Bus on fire!!!”

The burning bus at Farmgate in Dhaka on hartal eve

All of us rushed to the balcony to catch a glimpse of what was going on. The reporters and photographers quickly went downstairs to cover the incident. I tried to take some photos from the balcony but they were not as appealing as I would have liked them to be. So, I got into the elevator to go down, grabbing my point-and-shoot Olympus camera. It had been only a week in the newspaper office and I wanted some piece of action, and perhaps, had an urge to prove myself.

The 20 seconds on the lift felt like an hour. I was cursing the poor lift, mumbling about why it is so slow, which was quite unfair as the lift was as up to standard as it could possibly be. It was only adrenaline-induced me who wanted the whole world to move a bit faster.

The main entrance of the Daily Star was full of people. I went out after the guards reluctantly opened the gate and there it was at a close distance – the burning bus, which looked like a crashed tin can, only smouldering. A curious crowd was watching carefully from a distance and the place was swarming with newspaper and TV station crews. The bus was set ablaze near the Farmgate intersection of the city, which is in close proximity to all the major newspapers and TV stations’ headquarters.

My heart raced faster as I started taking pictures of the burning bus. I felt like doing something out of the ordinary. Probably, I was excited about the fact that I can show off to my boss about my hard news covering skills. When my senses started to creep back in, I observed anxiously, all the news crews who got close to the burning bus were wearing helmets and other protective gears. I felt vulnerable with only t-shirt and jeans on, but continued my seemingly chivalrous act. It was too hard for proud-me to flee the scene although I will not say that I did not want to, as the heat of the fire and the chaos all around was a bit hard for me to take.

I was getting frustrated, as my camera could not capture the scenes at dark night properly. I started to shoot videos instead and kept walking towards Farmgate along the footpath, which was only about seven meters away from the burning bus. When I reached Farmgate in a minute or two, I saw the police cordoning off the place.

(Youtube link of the burning bus video – 1)                                    (Youtube link of the burning bus video – 2)

I decided to stop for the day and get on a bus home. However, I was too excited to notice that there was not a single vehicle anywhere near the scene. I thought of taking a rickshaw from the other side of the road but decided otherwise and started walking back as I could almost hear the cry of the unfinished puris, or maybe, I was high on adrenaline. In the meantime, police started charging batons so I rushed my steps a little bit.

Suddenly, I heard the ominous hissing sound of the gas leaking out from the cylinder as I was going past the bus. I felt really stupid for not considering the blowing up of a compressed natural gas (CNG) cylinder before. So many thoughts started swarming around in my head; I thought to myself, “This can’t be the end, this can’t be THE END!”

I started running with all my might as the hissing sound started to amplify.  I saw a cameraman from the ATN channel (which I came to know later) shooting my gauche Olympic sprint for my life. I didn’t mind becasue making myself look athletic and cool on the camera wasn’t the priority at that time.

I, somehow, came close to the crowd who also started to move back, at a rather slower pace than mine. Then it happened – Boom! We heard the glass windows shattering to pieces, and to everyone’s respite, it was a small explosion and the splinters did not fly that far.

When the danger elapsed, I felt a bit disappointed. “Why there wasn’t a bigger explosion,” I muttered, completely forgetting that I was running for my life and hoping for no explosion at all, just a second before. I picked up my broken pieces of courage, which was smashed like the glass window of the bus, and started taking pictures again.

Curious crowd watches as the bus burns

I spoke to the people on the scene to have an idea about the probable cause behind the incident. Some of them said – masked BNP men came, drove all the people out of the bus, torched it and went away. Others said – the engine of the bus accidentally caught fire as it reached the intersection and all the passengers got down safely before it started burning on full scale. I have to say, all those accounts seemed too convincing and appeared to be rather convenient.

I wondered about the zero casualties from the alleged act of anarchy, or accidental fire, for that matter. I tried to picture nearly 40 passengers in a crowded local bus getting down safely after it was on fire; not that I’m complaining that everyone lived, but things seemed a bit fishy.

I started digging more, spoke to some more people, and I came across a shopkeeper who sells clothes in Farmgate who was among the rabble. I will keep him anonymous for the rest of the accounts to keep him protected.

All the buses plying in Dhaka roads have a definite route number, e.g. no. 6, no 15/A. The bus that caught fire was no. 3, which runs in Mirpur – Uttara route and owned by local Awami League (AL) leader Kamal Mazumder, who is currently a member of the parliament (MP). BNP leader SA Khalek also owns many buses in this route.

The shopkeeper said, “It’s just a setup. Do you think BNP has the muscle-power to torch Kamal’s bus while he reigns?

“The AL high-ups asked Kamal to torch three or four of his buses on the major intersections to show people how radical the BNP guys are and in return, he was promised a fleet of 20 brand new buses instead of the broken and almost un-drivable, unfit ones that he owns. That was the secret deal.”

I have to say I am in two minds about his allegations but I thought I should share what I have learnt. This inside scoop, if true, will give us a better idea of how Bangladesh’s politics works, with sabotage and destruction guiding the way.

“That bus was dead anyway, it was out of order. Why was no one arrested? They got all the passengers out, put petrol and set it on fire and went away under police’s eyes,” the shopkeeper kept on saying, being sceptic about the apparent expediency of the incident.

Ironically, the opposition does not seem to mind if others create anarchy to put them off. Maybe, they think their work is half-done because they want some buses to burn, glasses to blow apart anyway, and probably some easy lives to get perished in the process.

The burnt bus after fire fighters took control

Bangladeshis have seen irretrievable damage done to the national economy since the inception of democracy in 1991 due to hartals. The political parties have chosen hartal as a way to squash the government for accepting their demands and have never been able to find a substitute in almost 20 years.

Late Shah AMS Kibria, former finance minister of Awami League, told a seminar in 1998 that Bangladesh suffered a loss of $55 million (Tk 386 crore) in a day of hartal. Other statistics show that Bangladesh lost about three years because of hartal in thirty-nine years of its existence, so the damage is staggering.

The country has been experiencing hartals from the mid eighties for which both the major political parties – Awami League and BNP – are equally responsible. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once promised that her party would never inflict hartals, even when it would go to the opposition, but unfortunately, she did not keep her word.

The history of this land provides proof that hartals were successful against the dictators in both pre- and post-independence era, mostly in the political evolution of the country since early 1960s, but not anymore. Whatever positive role it played before, is inapt in this democratic era because hartal has lost its positive role and effectiveness as a political tool.

Undoubtedly, Bangladesh has more population than it needs. Too many people, especially the poor, is a headache for the government and all the concerned. Is this abundance making those lives expandable? This culture of hartal has been talked about a million times; how it destroys the economy, how it puts everyone’s life to a standstill, the figures and facts, and not to mention, all the lives that perished.

The shopkeeper said, “The politicians are completely worthless.” I don’t know if he is right or wrong but unfortunately all these things point to that direction. Our politicians are not performing the way they should be or “performance” might bear a very different meaning to them.

It might sound selfish that I’m only talking about hartals when it almost claimed my life. Sometimes realisation comes to you only when you experience it first-hand and the incident made me understand that any of us could fade away at any moment because this charade is happening too frequently and we are unable to put a leash on it.

I did not forget my puris though — I went up, had my auspicious puris for which I was about to give my life away, had a cup of tea, came down again, and saw the fire fighters taking control of the fire. I started to walk back home with a head full of thoughts and quite a big appreciation for the beautiful thing we call – LIFE.

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