Hand to Mouth: The traditional Lahathi bangle-makers of Bihar are relinquishing their craft

The festive season has been lacklustre for the Lahathi bangle makers of Bihar. There are not too many takers for their traditionally crafted lac bangles.

Hemant Kumar Pandey
| Updated: November 9th, 2020

Photo: Jigyasa Mishra

On a day when the bangle shops in the old market at Jhanjharpur, in Madhubani district, about 183 kilometres from Bihar’s state capital Patna, should have been buzzing with women buying bangles for Diwali and Chhath puja, the bangle market, where special bangles and kadas are made and sold, bore a desolate look. The pandemic and the subsequent economic crunch have affected the income and livelihood of the Lahathi makers. 

The Lahathis are a resigned lot. “People are facing food scarcity, how would they buy fashion items?” they say. And it looks like this year, Diwali and Chhath will come and go and the bangle makers will still have nothing to celebrate.

“Our bangles are handmade,” Ramchandra Lahari, a Lahathi lac bangle craftsman told Gaon Connection. “It takes more effort and time and we are not able to compete with the bangles coming from outside. Their finish is better, so customers like them better,” he said. 

Lac with which the bangles are made, is a natural resin secreted by an insect on trees like the flame of the forest and the kusum tree found in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Maharashtra. The lac is gradually heated over a slow flame and shaped into bangles and bracelets. This traditional craft has been passed on through generations.  

But now it is looking like the end of the road for the bangle makers who have already shrunk in numbers. Of the three dozen or so families of the Lahari community in Jhanjharpur, only a handful in a dozen families are still making bangles. Many of the older artisans don’t practise the craft anymore, while the younger generation has begun migrating to other cities in search of work as labourers. 

The Lahathi bangle makers are mostly from the districts of Darbhanga, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur and Madhubani, that went to poll recently. But the bangle-makers are despondent. They complain that their problems don’t figure in the election propaganda. 

“Neither the government nor any regional leader has paid any attention or taken initiative towards addressing our issue,” said Rajkumar Lahari. 

“Previously, we used to make bangles here and send it out. Now, the bangles manufactured elsewhere are brought here to be sold,” said Ramchandra sadly. “We used to be taken by the government to the exhibitions in Allahabad [Prayagraj], Gwalior and other cities, and we would get travelling allowance and other expenses. But now it has all ended,” he said.

It takes two artisans 15 to 20 minutes to make one dozen bangles. Photo: Jigyasa Mishra

“Both my sons know the art of making bangles but its income (on an average Rs 400-Rs 500 per day) could not have supported the family and so they were both forced to leave,” said Ramchandra whose one son is a factory worker in Mumbai and the other a labourer.

“We pick up our raw materials from small markets. The big businessmen of Jaipur or Indore source stones and other raw materials from China and this brings down their input cost while ours remain high and so they have an advantage over us,” Ganpati Kumar from Jhanjharpur pointed out to Gaon Connection.  The average price of Bihar’s Lahathi bangles ranges between Rs 40 to Rs 150 a dozen.  While the cost of the Lahathi bangles and those from Jaipur are more or less the same, the Jaipur bangles are better finished and therefore sell better. “We have to sell at the same price to survive. Our labour is much more, but our profit is much less,” explained Kumar. 

Rajkumar Lahari and his wife Kiran Devi have been making lac bangles for the last 30 years and that is how they have supported their family on this income. He has two sons. The older son Rajesh Kumar is a graduate and works in Mumbai. The second son, Ganpati Kumar is in college. Two brothers of Rajkumar have also gone to Mumbai to find work.

“The two of us work to earn Rs 400 to 500 per day. The government says that a labourer should get Rs 350, but we fail to earn even as much,” Rajkumar told Gaon Connection. It takes the husband and wife 15 to 20 minutes to make one dozen bangles. They say if the bangles are a little more ornate it may take them about half an hour to make a dozen bangles. “On a good day, we make approximately 25 dozen bangles a day,” said Rajkumar. 

Bangle makers complain that their problems don’t figure in the election propaganda.

It was not always like this. In the past, Lahathi craftspeople enjoyed a good income and recognition. According to Rajkumar, his father and grandfather were even able to purchase land and build houses with their incomes. But indifference of the governments have reduced them to this, he said.

“Presently, our economic situation is so bad that whenever we need money for a marriage in our own families, we have to pawn or sell our jewellery or even our ancestral property to make arrangements,” said Rajkumar.

Ganpati Kumar wants to be atmanirbhar (self-sufficient) he says but his aspirations are quashed by his poverty.  “Although we have the skills, we have no capital to take our craft forward,” the 19-year-old told Gaon Connection. He said the traditional craft that has come down to them from their forefathers has a bleak future and may well disappear. 

Krishna Sah (centre) with his family.

One of the Lahati bangle makers, Krishna Sah moved to Delhi four years ago looking for a better life. He returned to the village during the lockdown and has been home since then. He cycles to neighbouring villages selling the bangles but is planning to return to Delhi after Chhath Puja.  

“Doing this work requires money while I don’t have any,” lamented Sah, “I pick up goods worth five thousand to ten thousand rupees to sell. I had tried borrowing from the bank but failed. I have no hope from this line of work,” he said.

The Jhanjharpur assembly constituency has been represented by several political parties and coalition MLAs. From 2000 to 2010, it was the RJD candidates Jagdish Narayan Chaudhary and Ram Avtar Chaudhary, then it was Nitish Mishra of JD (U) in 2010, and RJD’s Gulab Yadav was elected from Jhanjharour in 2015.  In the Lok Sabha elections for the year 2019, Rampreet Mandal of JDU won.  

But, even having the  Bharatiya Janata Party MP, Giriraj Singh from Bihar in charge of the ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) failed to earn them any benefit, said the bangle makers.

However, Ganpati Kumar still seemed hopeful about the central government schemes and the  Atmanirbhar (Self-reliant India) campaign. “It would have been good if we had benefited from it. Although loans are also given out by the private banks and local moneylenders, it would have been better if the government had eased the loan procurement from government banks.”

Ramchandra Lahari told Gaon Connection that he went to the government handicraft centre at Madhubani, that promotes Bihar’s crafts and is meant to facilitate craftspeople, organise their exhibitions, etc., along with some other artisans to apply for loans but were unsuccessful. 

Ramchandra Lahari.

Gaon Connection tried getting an official statement on the matter from the handicraft centre, but its office was closed and the officials could not be contacted over the phone.  

Mohan Prasad Sah owns a bangle shop near Kotwali Chowk in Madhubani. He is the president of the Bihar Lahari Federation that was created as a platform to present the concerns of the Lahri community. “We are unable to present a united front and press for resolutions to our problems from the government,” admitted Sah. “So far, no initiative has been taken by the federation to seek loans from the government. He added that nearly 75 per cent of artisans have left the trade to pursue other jobs.”  

The federation hopes to revive and ask the new government for help when it is formed, Anil Kumar Gupta, general secretary of the federation, told Gaon Connection

In the meanwhile, the bangle makers and sellers continue to dwindle in number. “Four of us in the family work together in order to earn Rs 500-600 a day. My father makes sweets and his income helps meet other needs,” Pappu Sah who makes and sells bangles at his store in Kotwali Chowk.  “We barely eke out a living and I do not want my son to undergo these hardships,” he said.

Read the story in Hindi.