In Karnataka's Boragaon village, the last kalaiwala reflects on his lifelong engagement with the now dying art form
Kalai is a traditional art form in which the brass and copper vessels were tin coated before they could be used for cooking.
“This is our work. It will burn [fingers], but we overlook it [sic]. Work should never stop,” says the 80-year-old Ramzan Momin proudly as he enamels a brass vessel. A kalaiwala, Ramzan has been tin coating brass and copper vessels for 52 years now. He is the last kalaiwala in Boragaon village [Chikodi taluka] of Karnataka’s Belgaum district.
Once a thriving art form, today, kalai is on the verge of extinction. For the past six months, he hasn’t received any kalai orders. “Where do you find the brass and copper utensils now? Everyone now uses steel and plastic utensils which don’t require kalai,” he says.
Kalai is a traditional art form in which the brass and copper vessels were tin coated before they could be used for cooking. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Upon heating, the metallic copper reacts with organic acids present in the food. This can cause food poisoning and hence the metals are enameled by depositing tin on the surface of the utensils.
In the late 1950s, he worked as a handloom labourer in the nearby Ichalkaranji town of Maharashtra where he was paid Rs 1.5 daily for ten hours of work. He used to weave one handmade eight var [one var is 90 cm] cotton saree in five hours. “That saree was sold in the market for Rs 10,” he recollects.
After working there for a decade, he then moved on to a power loom in Ichalkaranji town where he was paid Rs 2 daily. “Tab [1960s] me 10 rupaye me ghar chalta tha [We could manage the household expenses in Rs 10],” he says smilingly. He made dhotis on power loom.
Ramzan couldn’t complete his education beyond grade VI because of the financial constraints. After dropping out, he worked as an agricultural labourer in the Boragaon village. For nine hours of work daily, starting at 8 in the morning, he was paid ‘athane’ [50 paise] in the early 1950s.
The landowner in whose farm he worked had a few handlooms in Boragaon village on which cotton sarees were made. “He taught me how to weave sarees on handlooms,” recalls Ramzan.
After his father, Rasul, passed away in 1966, he started practising the ancestral occupation of kalai. His uncle, the late Nabilala Momin, would practice kalai in Ichalkaranji town. “I didn’t learn this art from my father, I learnt it from my uncle,” he says. Every day after completing his work on the handloom, Ramzan would go to his uncle and observe his work, subsequently learning the art form. “I used to rotate the bhata [forge] then,” he says.
People from the villages of Manakapur, Boragaonwadi, Examba, Janwad, Kasanal, Shiradwad in Karnataka’s Belgaum district and Rangoli, Latwadi, Lat in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district used to be Ramzan’s regular customers to get their vessels coated.
Starting from the 1960s, he would cycle to Ichalkaranji town [15 km] for tin coating the vessels in community temples. “I was paid Rs 100 for six hours of work daily,” he recalls with a smile. “100 was a lot of money then,” he adds. In the early 2000s, the demand for the occupation came down because of the heavy use of steel vessels which don’t require tin coating.
The art of kalai
In the kalai work, first the utensil surface is cleaned. If any dents are present, they are removed. Now, the surface is heated slowly with ammonium chloride which is used as a flux to tin coat the metal. The raw tin metal strip is now melted which is then applied at the inner surface of utensils using a cotton cloth that helps in coating them.
For the process, two people are required, one to enamel the surface and the other to rotate the forge. Earlier, the craftsmen were given foodgrains in exchange for their service. From the early 1960s, foodgrains were replaced with monetary compensation.
For enameling bigger vessels [which can hold 12 litres water] Ramzan charges around Rs 200 now and for the smaller vessels, he charges Rs 50. Earlier, he used to get Rs 2.5 for tin coating a 12-litre vessel. Now, he also asks people to bring tin with the vessels.
On an average, 5 tolas of ammonium chloride and 100 grams of raw tin are required to enamel a six-liter vessel, estimates Ramzan [1 tola= 11.6638 grams]. Today, one-kilogram ammonium chloride costs close to Rs 40 and one-kilogram tin costs around Rs 1,500. In the early 1990s, the same ammonium chloride would cost Rs 9 per kg and the tin would cost around Rs 300 per kg. Earlier, the grocery shops in Boragaon village used to keep the raw materials required for kalai [From early 2000, they stopped selling the raw materials because of the decline in the demand]. “Now, I’ve to buy it from Ichalkaranji, Kurundwad or Miraj [in Maharashtra],” he says.
Along with kalai, Ramzan also repairs broken vessels and stoves, and attaches tap to the vessels for which he takes an hour and charges Rs 100 for a 12-litre vessel and Rs 70 for a six-litre vessel.
“I got this stove three years back for repairing [from someone] in Boragaon,” he says pointing at the repaired stove which is now covered with dust. “The person never came back to collect it.” Only the nomads who travel continuously use stoves now, he assumes. “Now, everyone has started using gas cylinder even if they can’t afford,” he says laughingly.
When I ask him if anyone has come to him for learning the art form, he replies, “What will anyone do by learning this art form? I’ll have to beg despite being an artist. Both my sons help me [financially] now,” he adds.
“This year, I have earned only Rs 1,000. I just sit here every day, talk to my friends and then return to home,” he says sadly. 15 years ago he stopped going outside for kalai because of old age. Ramzan doesn’t own any farming land. He says, “Kalai is our farming.” His wife, Alima, 66, looks after the two cows and a goat and is a homemaker. His mother, the late Jaibun, was also a homemaker.
His daughters Shainaz, 45 and Jasmine, late 30s, are married and work as agricultural labourers. His elder son, Ladkan, 45 works as a house painter and younger son, Samiallah, in his early 40s, runs a meat shop.
Ramzan also learned a unique skill in which he crafts chirag [traditional lanterns] using tin sheets. “There was no electricity in Boragaon till 1964,” he remembers. So his father made chirag which would help the villagers in the dark. “There was no steel [in our village] at that time,” he smiles. After the ban on Kerosene, he stopped handcrafting them. “Where will you buy Kerosene from? Also, people now use LED lights,” he says. To date, he has crafted more than 50 chirags and takes three hours in crafting one.
“I will stop working when my hands and legs stop functioning,” he says. Talking about the declining occupation he says, “Sab kuch karta hu, bas kaam nahi he [I do everything, but there’s no work]”
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