Fifty-one-year-old Tanveer Saifi has many memories of his father. His fondest one, though, is of him sitting cross-legged by the door of his workshop in Meerut, keenly observing craftsmen making scissors. Among them was a young Tanveer himself, who, in order to earn the trust of his father, meticulously sharpened the scissor blades. Today, Tanveer trains his own son while he runs the workshop that was first set up by his grandfather, almost a century ago. It is called Shalimar Scissors. “Shalimar means ‘diamond’. Meerut’s scissors are as precious as that,” Tanveer says with pride.
Indeed that is the reputation that Meerut’s scissors have enjoyed in India for several decades. Along with Hindi pulp fiction publications and cricket bat manufacturing units, scissor making is perhaps one of the oldest crafts in this bustling town situated 100 kilometres from the capital, in western Uttar Pradesh.
A narrow winding lane situated deep inside old Meerut is dotted with dingy workshops. Here the air is always heavy with iron dust and is buzzing with the sounds of hammering, chiselling, grinding etc. Locally referred to as ‘Kainchi Bazaar’, the lane is actually called Mohalla Sabun Grahan Kainchiya. This name was derived from the soap market that thrived alongside the scissor market; it shut down after globalisation. Meerut’s scissors, however, seem to have stood the test of time.
The local craftsmen are not sure of when the market came into existence. However, reports suggest the industry is 350 years old. It is said that in 1645, a local blacksmith Akhunji combined two swords to cut leather, thus making the first pair of scissors in India. Meerut-based historian Amit Pathak believes that the craft emerged during the Mughal period. “Whether it is the wood carving of Saharanpur or the bead making in Moradabad, almost all major towns of this region had mastered some kind of art in the Mughal era to add to the economy. The British too encouraged the trade by placing good transport systems in place. Since then, the art of scissor making has been passed on through generations,” he explains.
“I am the third generation in my family to be employed in the business,” says 35-year-old Shamiuddeen Rehman of Famous Scissors. His workshop is a dark, tiny room that smells of chemicals. A shelf on one side of the room is stacked with silver scissor blades. These blades are made of recycled metal scrap. A bulb hangs low on the other side, under which a craftsman carves the scissor body out of bronze. Two others operate a machine at a corner. Most workshops in Kainchi Bazaar have similar features, except some that also house furnaces and grinder machines.
“Every pair of scissors passes through almost 22 pairs of hands, each person an expert in a different process that includes cutting, sharpening, welding, polishing and more,” says craftsman Mohammad Furqan. To explain further, he holds up a blade and places it on the flames ablaze in the furnace and then dips it in water. “This is to strengthen and sharpen its edges,” he adds.
Strength, sharpness, sturdiness, smoothness and durability are some of the characteristics that have made Meerut’s scissors popular — and the craftsmen attribute this to their meticulous handwork. “The manual labour coupled with our attention to detail is what makes the scale and quality of Meerut’s scissors far more superior than that of machine-made scissors,” claims Burhanuddin, a manufacturer. “Tailors and barbers across the country still use our scissors,” says Salim Ali, a craftsman who works for a daily wage of Rs 300. A young, frail boy with spiked golden hair, Salim is new to the scissor craft and is learning from Burhanuddin who is his mentor and employer. This practice is representative of the ‘ustaad’ system still practised at Kainchi Bazaar.
Making scissors — a legacy and heritage — which emerged in an unlikely lane is the pride of Meerut. For centuries, Meerut’s scissors, either made on order or supplied to retailers and exporters, have been travelling the world. However, for the last few years, Kainchi Bazaar has been facing several threats. It houses close to 600 units employing approximately 70,000 craftsmen who work in poor conditions. These mini-factories see frequent power cuts and have no ventilation. Many craftsmen here sustain cuts and injuries on a daily basis. Some who work on grinder machines breathe in iron dust particles and suffer from respiratory issues. Thirty-year-old Mohammad Adil has had tuberculosis twice, yet he continues to work. “I have no other skills. What else will I do?” he asks. When asked about using a mask, he, like most others, terms it useless and says that workers will still end up breathing in finer particles.
Munna, a frail 55-year-old craftsman, has begun losing his sight and has trouble breathing. “I have worked here all my life, but now I am unable to find work. I don't get any loans for my treatments either,” he says.
But there are more problems plaguing this industry than just its poor working conditions. Mohammad Saad, 68, of Sheikh Scissors has seen the business change over time. Sitting outside his workshop, dressed in a crisp white kurta-pyjama, he strokes his white beard and rues, “The business is in losses for the last decade. This is due to competition with Chinese scissors.” Several other craftsmen echo his sentiments. “Chinese scissors have plastic bodies that are flimsy and have no durability. But unlike ours, they are cheap,” asserts 45-year-old Mohammad Asif. Meerut’s scissors are priced anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 1000, depending on their size.
As Chinese products continue to pose a threat, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is proving to be the final nail in the coffin. “GST has increased our cost of production, which we need to recover through our sales. But who will buy such expensive scissors?” asks Mohammad Saad. On the subject of profit margins, almost everyone I spoke to suggests that they are negligible. Manufacturer Bilal Siraj says that the annual turnover of Kainchi Bazaar was less than a hundred crores last year.
Meerut’s scissors were awarded the WTO GI (geographical indicator) tag in 2013. However, craftsmen say that this has done nothing to increase demand. Nor has there been any government aid. The craftsmen have also been unable to take any loans as micro/small-scale enterprises.
These issues have collectively given rise to two ironic situations. Fearing a bleak future, the craftsmen who own workshops do not want the younger generation to take up the business. On the other hand, craftsmen who work on a daily wage and fear unemployment, now get their children to work. A 14-year-old who is busy hammering two blades together without any protective gear says, “I come everyday to help my father after school. I am able to contribute to the family income as well as save some pocket money to have fun with my friends,” he says.
When it comes to the children of workshop owners, who have to learn the craft before they take up ownership roles, the enthusiasm seems low. “It will be better if they find good jobs rather than doing this back-breaking work,” says Shamiuddeen whose son is pursuing a degree in law. His thoughts resonate with several others, except a handful of youngsters who believe in carrying on the legacy.
Tanseer Saifi, who has a Master's in Commerce, works under his father. He has started an Instagram page for Shalimar Scissors and also invests in online advertising and sales. “For anything to sustain over time, innovation is key,” he says. Holding up an old, thin sepia-tinted book on scissors that was published by his great-grandfather in 1896, he tells me how proud he is of choosing to continue in this line of work. Three workshops away, 21-year-old Najimuddeen’s establishment also has a website. On India’s relationship with China, he says, “I think the market has potential and I am giving it my best. However, if profit margins continue to remain low, I will move on to a better job.”
Unfortunately, one cannot see any women at Kainchi Bazaar. The belief is that women do not need to do such labour-intensive work. Notably, 99 percent of Kainchi Bazaar is operated by Muslims. Though they admit that religion has never gotten in the way of their business, they have to be extremely cautious in a town that is known to be communally sensitive, especially under the current political regime. “We deal with a lot of Hindu clientele that includes retailers, suppliers etc. While negotiation is part of business, we have to keep our cool during arguments. Here, anything can turn communal within seconds,” asserts Najimuddeen.
Grappling with such issues, the scissor craft of Meerut, like most other traditional crafts and trades, seems to anticipate a slow death. The need of the hour is innovation as well as opportunities that the scissor makers are looking out for. In the meantime, they painstakingly continue working, hoping that Meerut’s scissors will someday make the cut in the future.
All photographs by Devyani Nighoskar
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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2019 09:52:59 IST