The tragic turn the epic takes is another story, but it’s a vital record that the city’s goldsmiths and the jewellery market was always something illustrious. Over 5,000 small and big showrooms selling gold jewellery line the long stretch of South Avani Moola Street today and the bazaar is quoted to be one of the biggest in the region. But behind the thriving gold business is the hard work, perseverance and hopes of thousands of goldsmiths who sweat it out all day inside the numerous ‘pattarai’ that dot the area.
R. Vijayaraghavan is a 4th generation goldsmith whose forefathers worked for the Ettayapuram Zamindar. “My grand father used to take orders from the shops in Madurai and also sell finished jewels in the city. Earlier, Amman Sannathi was the gold market. In the 60’s, a few shops opened at the Jhansi Rani Park to the South of the Temple and that was referred to as ‘Anju Kada Bazar’ (meaning ‘five shops market’). It grew into a big bazaar and today is easily the biggest gold market in South Tamil Nadu,” he says. Vijayaraghavan’s pattarai (workshop) is a hole-in-the-wall space that barely accommodates two moulding machines. He sits cross-legged behind half-a-dozen wooden desks, concentrating on the sheet of gold at hand. Nearly 50 kinds of big and small tools from spanners, scalpels, screw drivers, thin hammers and cutters lie in a mound into which he often digs to find the right one. He juggles between the art, attending phone calls and watching TV. In half an hour, he turns out a perfectly round ring with a flower design.
“The orders have declined over the years and we don’t make even a quarter of the volume we used to design a few decades ago,” says M. Venkateswaran who runs a gold pattarai near South Masi Street. “Due to the entry of global brands and big showrooms, people have lapped up readymade gold jewellery. There was a time when goldsmiths used to be invited home and we designed the ornaments right in front of the customers, taking their suggestions. Gradually we got orders through showrooms and now machine-made designs are all the rage.” Until recently, the traditional ‘10 maatru thangam’ (gold ornaments made in 10:1 ratio) was in demand. After the 916 Hallmark calibration was introduced, the dynamics of gold manufacturing and trading changed, says Vijayaraghavan.
Though many goldsmiths blame the global jewellery chains for the loss of livelihood, S. Thirupathi Rajan, a 6th generation jeweller highlights the need to keep up with latest technology and aesthetics in the gold manufacturing field. “There’s still much demand for handcrafted jewellery and traditional goldsmiths can very well tap into the market, provided they upgrade their skills and embrace technological advancements in the process of jewellery making,” says Thirupathi Rajan, who runs GoldSmith Academy on Avaniyapuram Bypass Road, an institute for gold manufacturers set up under the Central Government’s Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana scheme of the National Skill Development Corporation. “We offer various short-term courses for goldsmiths on designing, polishing, valuing and marketing gold. It’s imperative for traditional goldsmiths to keep themselves updated to the current trends,” he says.