The crucible is on fire, its sides flame-orange with heat. But Krishnan picks it up anyway with iron tongs and a steady hand, quickly moving aside the burning coals that cover it. He tips it over a rectangular mould with four vertical grooves, each the width of a pencil.

Gold pours down like lava, hot and fiery and thick. One end is on fire and the other—four inches away—is already turning solid. A minute later, Krishnan picks up the now solid gold with the tongs and thrusts it, hissing and smoking, into a steel vessel filled with water. A brand new gold bar is now formed. In a few days, this pock-marked piece of metal will be unrecognisable: it will become a piece of handmade jewellery.

K. Krishnan is an assistant in P. K. Lakshmanan’s workshop in Edayar Street, Coimbatore. Standing alongside Sullivan Street and Telugu Brahmin Street, this crowded area teems with jewellery makers. The houses are narrow, the rooms airless. Under bright electric lights, goldsmiths sit on the floor, in front of short wooden worktables, their hands swiftly shaping gold into pendants and earrings and necklaces.

In 2010, there were about one lakh goldsmiths in Coimbatore. The city was, and still is, among the biggest gold processing centres in south India. According to B. Muthu Venkatram, president of the Coimbatore Jewellery Manufacturers Association, nearly 40 per cent of the gold that’s imported into India annually—pegged at 600 tonnes just for jewellery by the World Gold Council—is processed in the south.

It’s therefore easy to assume smiths are thriving and their profession is lucrative. However, it’s the opposite.

Since 2010, 10,000 smiths have quit the trade annually, an average of 30 a day. For many of them, jewellery making was kulathozhil (work done by the family over several generations). Venkatram says there are many complex reasons for the steady and sharp decline. “Customers want new designs,” he says, “‘with 0% wastage and no making-charge’.”

The smiths are simply unable to meet these expectations when they handcraft jewellery the traditional way. They can afford neither the re-skilling required nor the machinery. The lack of machinery in particular has left many of them redundant, leading to a drop in the number of assured workdays every month. This in turn has hit their finances.

The smiths are simply unable to meet these expectations when they handcraft jewellery the traditional way. They can afford neither the re-skilling required nor the machinery. The lack of machinery in particular has left many of them redundant, leading to a drop in the number of assured workdays every month. This in turn has hit their finances.

So the smiths were pushed to other jobs, to becoming salesmen and security guards. Their way of life is swiftly vanishing.

[“W]hen my grandfather was a young smith looking for work, he would carry his tools on his back and set off for the hills. He would work along the way, and in the hill hamlets, he collected gold from tribals,” says P. K. Lakshmanan, a jeweller and smith who is also Krishnan’s employer. “Our community—Tamil Viswakarma—were traditionally smiths. We were young when we were initiated into the work. In the mornings, we would bathe, pray, light a lamp, get the workshop ready, and begin.”

The workshops were their schools, the training their education. With practice, you could be a skilled worker by the time you were an adult, Lakshmanan explains.

Wearing a white dhoti and white shirt, Lakshmanan is tall and lean, with gold-rimmed spectacles and silver threading his hair. His executive chair is covered with a green-and-white towel. An iron safe, taller than a toddler, stands behind him, and a set of weighing scales sits inside a glass box on his desk.

Lakshmanan’s son, P. L. Suresh, 38, works with him. He shows me an old framed document, which reads “Certificate For Recognition As A Goldsmith”, dated July 11, 1973. This certificate, procured for Rs.1 and carrying a photograph of 24-year-old Lakshmanan, officially gave him limited rights to do what his family had done for generations: work as a goldsmith, subject to the provisions of the Gold (Control) Act, 1968.

(The certificate made it clear that the smiths were not allowed to trade in gold: “The certificate does not entitle the holder to carry on the business of buying and selling ornaments.”)

Lakshmanan grew from being an independent smith to running a large workshop in Edayar Street. He specialises in lightweight jewellery made in the Kerala style. Several of his employees are from rural Bengal.

“It is no longer profitable being an independent goldsmith,” Lakshmanan explains. “There is good money in other work so many young people from our community have opted for education and jobs. The older ones have switched to painting, security work, or gone back to farming.” So smiths from other parts of the country—especially the east—migrated to Coimbatore. “And following the smiths there are now electricians, cooks and barbers from Bengal, who have all moved here!”

There is good money in other work so many young people from our community have opted for education and jobs. The older ones have switched to painting, security work, or gone back to farming.

Lakshmanan is chatty and generous with his time. His workrooms spread across two floors. He still sits and works on the floor, cross-legged on a wooden plank, with his hammer, pliers and tongs. But while his work area is old-fashioned, Lakshmanan is progressive and believes machinery is the way forward. The jewellery he produces reflects his choice; no longer fully handmade, but pieced together from punched out and pre-shaped gold.


In one of the workrooms on the ground floor, Dinesh Kumar Chowdhury from Jalore, Rajasthan, is using a machine that quickly and efficiently flattens a rod of gold. A small wall-mounted television plays Hindi film songs in a corner. The other workers—all young men—stand right below the screen, watching, during their break, the hero and heroine dance and sing.

Upstairs, three smiths from West Bengal bend over their low tables; they barely look up when we enter the room. On the other side, Krishnan melts and reshapes gold over a terracotta flowerpot refashioned into a mud-stove.

The workrooms remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen. There is little sunlight, lots of smoke, and very primitive equipment. And just as she could simmer a delicious rasam with a kumuttiadupu (coal stove) and aeeyachombu (tin vessel), Krishnan and his colleagues handcraft fine and fragile jewellery from these sparsely furnished workshops.

The young men from Bengal are reluctant to talk, wary to even tell me their names. But they continue working and nod when I ask to photograph them. The close-ups reveal rough hands and discoloured fingernails that tightly hold fine-tipped tweezers, which can pick up a piece of gold no bigger than a grain of mustard and shape it into a pendant purely from imagination. One day it will be sold in a swanky showroom and the woman who holds it against her neck under a flattering yellow light will never know of the goldsmith from Bengal who did not wish to be named.

The young men from Bengal are reluctant to talk, wary to even tell me their names. But they continue working and nod when I ask to photograph them. The close-ups reveal rough hands and discoloured fingernails that tightly hold fine-tipped tweezers, which can pick up a piece of gold no bigger than a grain of mustard and shape it into a pendant purely from imagination. 

Coimbatore prospered in the 1930s. Jewellery in particular got a boost because the Bombay textile industry was hit by striking workers, whereas the textile business in Coimbatore was picking up.

“There was a multiplier effect—improved transport meant people could come to the city easily and often; the textile boom meant surplus money could be invested. It was a good time to run a business here,” explains Rajesh Govindarajulu, city historian and third-generation jeweller. His grandfather came here from Palani and started the store P. A. Raju Chettiar and Brother.

So Coimbatore became a hub for gold jewellery. Several styles and specialisations grew in the city. Nagas work was one, where birds, animals, flowers and figures are carved on gold to achieve a three-dimensional effect. Each piece was a stunning work of art, requiring weeks of work, and dozens of delicate instruments.

This was when B. R. Nataraj Chettiar began a small jewellery shop in Coimbatore in 1924. The store then was tiny and Chettiar would lock it at night and carry the jewellery back home. The stock would be brought back in the morning.

Today, Nataraj Chettiar’s grandson Kota Badrinath—a third generation jeweller as well—runs the elegant Naira Kota Jewellers in Gandhipuram, Coimbatore.

It’s furnished with things of great and expensive beauty: ornate carvings and antiques, and everywhere, handpicked and handcrafted jewellery are displayed on velvet and in felt cases. A gold hip-belt intricately carved in gold (“It takes nearly 40 days for a goldsmith to make this,” Badrinath says) rests on a sumptuous glass-topped table. It’s a world away from the workshops, and
yet the goldsmiths are only 20 minutes away.

[“W]e never quite complete making a piece of jewellery,” says K. Krishnamurthy, 54, third-generation smith and jeweller from Coimbatore. At no point does a good smith feel the ornament is fully ready: that’s how keen he is about perfecting a piece in which the customer cannot spot a single flaw with the naked/untrained eye. “But where is the respect for our work now? Where is the demand for it?”

The customer is not fully to blame. According to the World Gold Council, there has been a 400 per cent rise in the rupee gold price over the last decade. Making charges and wastage—usually charged as a percentage of gold—are therefore resented. This is a huge blow to a traditional goldsmith who incurs a much higher wastage of material: sometimes up to 25 per cent the weight of the ornament depending on the complexity (for Nagas or diamond jewellery), says Krishnamurthy.

With stiff and often cutthroat competition, especially from national jewellery chains with big marketing muscle, it’s difficult for an individual smith to manage.

“They can’t cope,” says 52-year-old K. Subbaiyan, 52, Krishnamurthy’s brother. “So many smiths we know are security guards and construction workers. They get paid Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 per month. When they sat as smiths and waited and waited, they got no work at all!”

Work shifted from independent workshops to factories, where one master smith supervises production of die-work jewellery. The workers—including women now, while historically 98 per cent of the smiths were men—only learn a part of the process. “Like assembly line production. You cannot call them goldsmiths in the traditional sense,” Subbaiyan says. A good smith doesn’t have an area of specialisation; he would even handcraft the delicate, precise iron tools and instruments needed to make the jewellery.

The brothers show me samples of their work: necklaces, stone-studded pendants that can be worn front and back, diamond studs, and finger rings. The ornaments speak of generations of accrued skills and a high degree of workmanship. The making charge for some of these pieces is three times that of a common or garden piece but, they say, that doesn’t half cover the labour that goes into its making.

Krishnamurthy and Subbaiyan do not wish this livelihood on their children, encouraging them to look at mainstream options instead. His daughter is studying to be an architect and his son is studying civil engineering. Subbaiyan’s first daughter is a computer science student and the second is in
primary school.

Some of the family’s skills may get passed on, perhaps to their assistants. But it’s unlikely their passion ever can.

Buyers of jewellery are no longer aware of what goes into its making, Badrinath says. “They only come and ask, ‘can you make the price lower? Can you increase the discount?’”

The trend of discounts began when bigger retailers and wholesalers moved in for a slice of the great Indian jewellery market. In 2013, FICCI estimates that 78 per cent of jewellery was sold through local and independent stores. Seventeen per cent came from regional chains, five per cent from national chains. Over the last two years the shares of regional and national chains have grown fast.

“All corporate jewellers say they manufacture with zero per cent wastage. But how do we do it? We don’t know what kind of investment and what sort of technology you need for those compliances,” says Venkatram. “An ordinary smith has probably been making a living out of his home, with two tables and kitchen equipment. He might want to heat bits of gold between 925°C to 950°C to melt it. When there’s no way to measure the temperature, he might end up over-heating it. That results in a lot of wastage. Where will he get the tools and technology to cut down?

If smiths are offered aid, it is 15 per cent subsidy on tools and machines, which is basically a waiver of the tax. But where does he go, in the first place, for the Rs 1- 2 lakh needed to buy a machine? He does not have it.

A smith’s daily wages ranges from Rs 500-Rs 1,000. Getting orders is difficult and repeat orders is near impossible. The average salary earned in 2010-2011 was Rs 1.6 lakh per annum in the jewellery sector. Compared with iron and steel manufacturing (Rs 2.5 lakh annually), and motor vehicles and trailer manufacturing (Rs 2.4 lakh), the jewellery trade that called for very high skill sets is paid poorly.

The problem is further compounded because the smiths have not received a good education. A FICCI study estimates that 40 to 45 per cent of employees (which includes smiths) in jewellery fabrication, have education levels below 10th standard.

The stress of a lack of education, poor finances, and no work orders got so bad that it drove some smiths to suicide, says Venkatram. “Also, smiths from Mumbai, Rajkot and Ahmedabad started making the jewellery that Coimbatore specialised in, cutting into the work that was coming here. The local smiths were therefore pushed into debt. There is also so much disenchantment that despite his skills, a smith is unable to make a living.”

It isn’t easy for the smiths to change occupations. An assistant in a goldsmith’s shop would find it easier to transition since he is, technically, “unskilled”, but a skilled goldsmith finds it more difficult. Venkatram says, “A shop assistant can get a job anywhere. But for a skilled smith, the craft is in his blood. He’s worked very hard to get where he is; but when he feels society does not support him, he decides to take his life. We have personally counselled people against it. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have any professional counselling centres for them.”

It is for the government to take an initiative, and show them that there’s an alternative, that there’s hope, says Venkatram. “A lot of financial backing is needed to rehabilitate out-of-work smiths. How can one individual do it?”

When individual smiths and independent jewellers are forced to compete in the same market as wholesale jewellers, they inevitably slash their prices. Wholesalers offer discounts, and the smiths’ margins are squeezed. “The jewellery business is run like a discount store,” says Govindarajulu. “It’s lost its sheen.”

If it is a struggle for a small/retail jeweller with access to banks and loans, it’s an impossible hurdle for a small-time smith who, previously, would have been invited to the homes of their customers, given the gold and the design, and asked to make the ornament right there. “But the art and beauty of shaping a jewel—like in the past, when grandmothers supervised the whole process, of a lump of gold becoming an ornament—is something even the jeweller does not see now,” says Govindarajulu.

There’s also the burden of soaring gold prices that make initial investment hard, and where even a slight defect in an ornament becomes a huge setback. Smiths with little or no insurance and gold are also a prime target for thieves, says Senthil Devaraj, a fourth-generation retail jeweller. Out of every 10 smiths I know, at least three or four are likely to quit within one generation,” he says.

But the numbers could be much higher. Third-generation smith T. Sankarapandian, who entered the profession with his six brothers, says all his brothers’ sons have now taken up other professions, a 100 per cent deviation from the previous generation. Sankarapandian himself was an independent smith. Now, he works for Badrinath, for a fixed monthly salary, which provides some financial security.

There is little that is romantic about being a goldsmith. Another constant issue plaguing them is their exposure to toxic materials and metal fumes, from indium, zinc and the now-banned cadmium. The damage is not visible to the eye, but there are many long-term health hazards.

“We use concentrated sulphur. It gives out a smoke,” Venkatram says, mimicking the loud hiss that sulphur makes. “When we do electroplating, we use a lot of cyanides, and there’s that smoke. We do use suction equipment, but it is not powerful, and there is still some residual smoke.”

These problems are exacerbated by the lack of awareness about health hazards. “In organised sectors—steel and spinning mills—there is zero per cent contamination environment. There have excellent suction equipment, the workers are asked to wear shoes and gloves and facemasks.”

Venkatram agrees this is hard to do in the jewellery trade—smiths can hardly wear bulky protective gloves and handcraft fragile and intricate jewellery—but he insists the only way forward is for the industry to become an organised one. He suggests affordable training institutes and a portal where independent smiths register themselves and list their skill sets. “Other industries have employment exchanges. Goldsmiths need it. Only then will the industry grow, it will bring revenue to the government. For the smiths themselves, it will be a security net.”

How, asks Venkatram, is innovation and great creativity possible when a smith is under such strain? “His worries don’t end with him: he has to pay his staff Rs 500 every day. What will he focus on? Jewellery designing is basically a mirror to what’s in the man’s mind. He receives no design inputs; he simply closes his eyes, prays to god and begins. But the way things are; do you think he can create?”

If the smiths have to continue on their own, he says, with skills learned from family members, they are unlikely to survive.

On vanishing livelihoods

What happens when a talented folk-arts dancer is forced to compete for opportunities with “fair, pretty” dancers who are one-third her age? What happens when the creator of a stunning work of art—a hand-woven saree—is paid on the basis of “cost of material plus labour’? The short answer is, they want out. Their children want out.

Whether it’s insufficient money, skewed policies or the powerful lure of cities, there are more families, communities in Tamil Nadu deserting their traditional livelihoods than are learning it.

Whether it’s insufficient money, skewed policies or the powerful lure of cities, there are more families, communities in Tamil Nadu deserting their traditional livelihoods than are learning it.

Although not unique to Tamil Nadu, this erosion in livelihoods is especially unfortunate in a state that is proud (and, at times, chauvinistic) of its culture and craft forms, its cultivators and cattle-breeders.

But the pride seems somewhat misplaced when its handloom weavers are offered a third over their monthly earnings to open and close college-bus doors, and to serve food in engineering college canteens (the average monthly income of a weaver is Rs 4,500). Their hereditary jobs—weaving masterpieces with silk and cotton threads—only sank them, like their looms, in debt. The new jobs make them feel “rich”.

In some cases, already dismal national trends are worse in Tamil Nadu: across India, indigenous cattle, as the 2012 livestock census shows, came down by nearly nine per cent. Bulls did especially badly. (In the same period—2007 to 2012—exotic and cross-breeds went up by 20 per cent.) In June, a Kangeyam bull-keeper lamented that with the ban on Jallikattu (bull taming), his prize-winning animal that was valued and wooed for Rs 1 lakh last year is now only worth its weight in meat. Who would want to rear indigenous bulls now?

Cultivators fared no better. Tamil Nadu stood at 12.9 per cent, a good 10 per cent  below the national average of 24.6 per cent (of all workers). Where did they go? Where did the gem cutters of Illupur—the tens of thousands who have quit being full-time profession als—go?

2011 migration data would point to cities, to urban spaces when, as P. Sainath wrote in The Hindu, “for the first time since 1921, urban India added more numbers to its population in a decade than rural India did”. And in those migrations, they didn’t just move away from homes and villages occupied for centuries; they moved away from livelihoods.

All of these livelihoods are fast vanishing; some are on the verge of extinction (as a full-time occupation). The skills and wisdom might not have takers among the younger lot, who would rather take up vocations that earn twice their parents’ monthly income, for jobs that demand one-tenth the skill and sophistication.

Like 21-year-old Satish from Narasingapettai (near Kumbakonam). His great-grandfather introduced the craft of making nadaswarams to the village. His grandfather discovered a very popular variation of the instrument. His father is one of the greatest craftsmen in the country. And Satish’s ambition is to drive a tourist van. He does not want to spend his life, bent over a piece of ebony wood (that’s almost impossible to source), and drill tiny holes that will produce—if played with skill—a divine music. Satish wants to make money.

Nobody in the village—and only four families still make it there—has become rich making nadaswarams. They are all farmers and depend on their land for regular income. They have received no awards. They are still waiting for a GI tag. Even the elders don’t wish this life of waiting and wanting on their children.

I also met Kamatchi, a 67-year-old part-time farmer, wife, mother and grandmother, and a poikaal (dummy-horse) dancer. Her art form involves wearing an ornate papier-mâché horse around her waist, and wooden stilts on the feet.

Her gear is very, very heavy, but once she’s got it on­—it takes her about an hour and a half—she forgets everything, and dances to the beat of the Maratha drums. But she struggles to find space for herself in a field that prefers younger, prettier and fairer dancers. She and her husband told me in their Thanjavur house that all they want is opportunities to perform, not handouts or awards that they cannot eat.

The series on Vanishing Livelihoods—including the story on the goldsmiths—tries to see if an  intervention is possible: if the state can sponsor or support a revival. It also makes a case for preserving these livelihoods, not only because they’re beautiful or ancient, but also because they are central and vital to a way of life we’d be a lot poorer without.