Dying Varanasi craft finds new lease of life after ODOP intervention
The pandemic dealt a harsh blow to Gulabi Meenakari artists as they struggled to make ends meet. Later, they were trained to promote and advertise their products under ODOP scheme.
Kunj Bihari Singh from Varanasi, an award-winning Gulabi Meenakari artist, went from being out of work to receiving orders worth lakhs of rupees a month.
He is also the one who crafted the Ganesha idol that chief minister Yogi Adityanath gifted to Tamil actor Rajinikanth on the latter’s recent visit to the city.
“Although proud, I’m still in disbelief that something made by me is going to find a place in the home of a superstar like Rajinikanth,” said Singh, who got the order for the idol ten days in advance.
“I only found out later that it was gifted to Rajnikanth when somebody from the CM’s team sent me a picture. I was very overwhelmed,” recounted Singh. An order for ten more such idols has been given to Singh by the CM’s team, he claimed.
However, fame and recognition have come to Singh and the community of Meenakari workers in Varanasi after much poverty and struggle, when their businesses started to falter a few years before the pandemic.
The community went from near joblessness to having flourishing businesses, in a matter of a few years, with a host of fresh orders from across the country.
Gulabi Meenakari, or pink enamelling, now GI-tagged, is an art form unique to the area, which involves the fusing of different minerals to emboss colourful and intricate designs on metal surfaces.
This work can be done on showpieces, jewellery items, cutlery, or any other metal object.
Singh recalled that around 2012, the unpredictable hike and drop in the silver rates had severely affected the income of Meenakari artists, rendering them helpless.
While some took up auto-rickshaw driving, others set up tea stalls. “We were counting the days to when our art will become extinct,” said Singh. The pandemic dealt a harsher blow to their work, and the artists struggled to make ends meet until they met Kshipra Shukla, who runs a design school and works closely with the ODOP (One District One Product) scheme.
The meeting brought the benefits of the scheme to artists at the grassroots level. A list of the artists was compiled and sent to Shukla, who then facilitated the process of not only bringing their art and their products to the market but also training them to advertise, photograph and promote their products on their own. “During the pandemic, the government even arranged for food and rations to reach the homes of the artisans,” said Singh. “Thousands of artists and their families got ration kits and medication arranged for by Shukla ma’am and the government,” he said. Along with him, Singh enlisted the skills of several other Meenakari workers from their community in Varanasi, helping them to continue to earn while also keeping their craft alive.
The artisans further said that training sessions were organised for new Meenakari artists by the ODOP team. “Toolkits were provided to us as well. These combined training sessions not only helped us exchange ideas and designs with one another, but we also learned about how to properly photograph our products and display them online so that we can start advertising them from our home.”
Following this, the art form and the artists gained such popularity that a Meenakari chess set made by Singh was gifted to the vice-president of the United States, Kamala Harris, by PM Modi on his trip there.
Singh himself has travelled as far as Geneva, Riyadh and Dubai to attend art expositions, training programs and workshops, to publicise the art of Gulabi Meenakari across the world.