Spirals of sugar-soaked orange jalebis, triangles of cashew-nut barfis, earthen bowls of condensed phirni - nothing is complete without the quintessential coat of thin silver.
The festival of lights is here again and shop owners have added an extra bit of varakh (foil) to crown their delectable preparations. But what goes into the making of these silver foils that add a glamour quotient to our sweets, paan (betel leaf) and fruits is little known.
The procedure of converting a lump of silver into a thin foil needs extremely skilled hands. Firstly, there is a book made of American papers, also known as synthetic papers. Thereafter, strips of thin silver are placed inside the pages of the book and put inside a pouch, which is then hammered till the desired thinness is achieved. For instance, a one-inch thin silver sheet is manually hammered for at least two hours and converted into about 13-inch long foil.
"The hammering has to be done skilfully or else the whole sheet might get spoiled," said Mohammed Zahid Khan (20), whose family has been into the foil making business for the last 300 years. After the foil is done to size, it is lifted from the leaves of the book and carefully placed between sheets of butter paper. It is then taken to the market and sold to the sweet makers. "A foil of about 12 inches would cost Rs 2.50 while a five-inch one would cost about Rs 1," said Zahid. A booklet of 150 foils weighs approximately 10 grams and costs about Rs 400. The price of Varakh varies from time to time depending on the market price of silver.
The artisans mostly hail from Uttar Pradesh, Jaipur and Ahmedabad, Gujarat. "Though the demand for these foils are very high in Mumbai, there are not many people skilled to do it," said Abid Ali (37), whose family has been in the business for centuries.
There are about 60 families in Mumbai making silver foils. But the demand for varakh is so high in the city that they have to be brought in from other states. "Specially during the festive season it is tough to meet the demand for varakh," said 60-year-old Hazi Abdul Salam Chandiwala, who belongs to the sixth generation of his family making foils. The demand for these foils has also grown in the international market and we are planning to export it to Dubai, said he.
Making foils out of gold in considered to be the toughest. "Gold is a very soft metal and making a foil out of it is not only time consuming but also expensive," said Ali.
Interestingly, Japan had once attempted to make a machine that would make foils but it failed because the wheels of the machine carried away the thin foils. Therefore, the big companies still require the help of artisans who do it manually.