Making Space:Sensing Place

In October 2009, along with artist Thurle Wright, I was awarded a Making Space:Sensing Place Fellowship; part of the HAT: Here and There International Exchange Programme, managed by A Fine Line:Cultural Practice. The Fellowship includes residencies with Britto Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and with The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. Working and collaborating with artists and craftspeople from the UK, Bangladesh and India, responding to the collections and spaces we encounter and sharing these experiences through a touring exhibition and educational workshops.

This blog, which is still developing and being added to, is a record of my experiences during the MS:SP Fellowship. Steven Follen.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Divine Metal

In central Ahmedabad a narrow road passes beneath Fernandes Bridge, made all the more narrow by the mass of book sellers who’s stalls are staked high.
The road passes from the market area known as Manek Chowk, heading north through the heart of the old city past a small cluster of temple silversmiths, engravers of auspicious signs, metal wholesalers and on towards the Swaminarayan Mandir (Temple).
Enamelled copper is used to form 'Gods Eyes'.
'Yantra' are small squares of metal engraved with designs. Yantrat were traditionally made from“Pach-Dhatu” a mix of five metals. They are used at prayers. Each God has a special 'Yantra'.
Laxashmi the Goddesses of wealth is one of the most popular and “Yantra” related to her are highly valued.

The old city of Ahmedabad is made up of ‘Pols’- self contained, gated neighborhoods; like cul-de-sacs of houses, arranged around narrow lanes. Together the Pols form a labyrinth, linked by hidden passages and tiny pathways. Each Pol has a ‘Chabutara’ or Bird feeder, its own well, sometimes a temple or mosque, a public space and often a diary, shop, laundry, rice mill… Each Pol has a name and is generally identified by the community or trade of the residents. I had heard that within one of the Pols there was a whole street of metalworkers who would fall into a rhythm of hammering in sync whilst they formed, textured and planished large copper water vessels. One evening, walking through the city, just beyond Fernandes Bridge and the bookstalls I was drawn by the sound of a constant rhythm of workers hammering. The regular beat didn’t come from the coppersmiths but instead from a small group of workshops making silver and gold metal leaf for use in temples, for offerings and on sweets.
Here men spend their days hammering a stack of small gold rectangles each one measuring approximately 1.2cm x 2.5cm and weighing around 0.05g.
These small pieces are stretched to make fine finished sheets 15cm x 12.5cm.
The gold is sandwiched between sheets of what the workers described as 'medical' paper (similar, I think, to the tough material used for disposable over suits or Tyvek) and held in a wallet of fine leather.
The men sit crossed legged and have a series of large stone tablets set in the floor as a base for working. A light touch of hand constantly shifts the position of the envelope on the stone slabs whilst the hammer systematically beats across the surface, evenly stretching the metal sheets inside.
The heavy hammers used for this work have two highly polished faces, one narrow for stretching the metal quickly, the other wider and flatter for smoothing out the foil. The men polish the hammer heads on teakwood boards coated with emery powder.
The work is highly repetitive, the rhythm and position of the worker seem to fall into a pattern, much like an automata. For periods of time the craftsman doesn't look at the envelope with the foil inside nor the position of the hammer blows. Its as if he has a picture in his head of what is happening, gauged through the touch of his fingers. You can see the men making metal leaf here: Precious Metal Leaf Makers.
There are several stages to drawing out the metal to make leaf.

Firstly precious metal wire is rolled out into the thin strips which are then cut into the small rectangles.
The initial stage of hammering produces a rounded rectangle that needs to be cut and re-arranged, then hammered again.

The rectangles are divided into quarters and the sections rotated to move the cut straight edges to the outsides producing a crisp rectangle.

A stainless steel blade, chalk, a leather finger 'mitt' and pulses of air are used to cut and lift the gold leaf, demonstrating a deep awareness of the nature and feel of the material. Small additional pieces trimmed from the edges are used to patch the gaps and in-fill the centre.

You can see the men cutting and rearranging the sheets of metal leaf here: Precious Metal Leaf Workers.
After re-arranging, the metal leaf goes back into the leather wallet to be hammered again. The overlapping pieces are fused together by the hammering process.

Taking a stack of around 30 small pieces of gold and stretching them into a fine leaf takes a whole day. The leather wallets and papers last for approximately three months before they need to be replaced.
Wrapping the sweets in silver or gold not only enhances their appearance but acts as a method of preservation, drawing on the inert and antimicrobial qualities of the metals. Sweets without the foil only remain fresh for a few days, those coated with the foil can last for "several weeks"......