Mela: An Artisan Story

October 1, 2017


Sambhal lies at the heart of India’s horn and bone industry, tucked away from the bustling city centers that seem to be leaving time-honored traditions behind. Nestled over 100 miles from Delhi, Sambhal is a city with a core population of only 90,000—which is considered small and remote in modern day India. Artisans residing in villages surrounding the city center have been working with horn and animal bone for generations.

Historically, horns were sourced from animals that died of natural causes. They were collected and provided to artisans to transform into art. As years passed, the horns became limited in supply and demand grew, so artisans turned to bones as well. As a lifelong vegetarian, I always struggle with not just meat consumption but also animal products in home and fashion. But, after learning more about the process behind horn and bone handiwork it became clear that these originate from a nation that holds animal life sacred and that this traditional craft honors and eternally preserves animals in a meaningful way. In fact, many of the artisans who work with the materials do not even eat the animals that they come from. The time spent on each piece seems to be one of the best tributes to Mother Nature imaginable. Horn and bone products gained global popularity as fashionable hair combs during the British Empire, and the products eventually evolved to fill every room in the home well beyond the reach of Southeast Asia or Western Europe.

Still, artisan techniques and the people who practice them face an existential threat across India. As the nation enjoys booming economic growth, global corporations are filling its massive cities with factories, which promise low but consistent pay and an opportunity to move closer to urban centers. These factories trade skilled, meaningful work for rapid assembly and mindless repetition—and the threat they pose to people and culture in places like Sambhal is multifaceted. The incredible techniques required to produce a horn and bone product must be learned through firsthand experience, and to have the skill is to have a means of employment and of preserving a rich cultural history. When people feel forced to eschew their historical line of work and craft in favor of access to quick money, they lose more than just their skills—they are forced to move away from family and friends and from the places that may represent hundreds of years of history in their ancestors’ lives.

Horn and bone products can only be made by hand, which makes them unique among modern consumer goods. Sawing, shaping, filing, and setting hundreds of pieces into intricate patterns requires precision and a keen eye. The bone must be cut into the appropriate size, dyed in the appropriate colors, and laid out to dry. Once the bone is ready to be set into a design, it’s applied using adhesive onto a metal base. Often, aluminum and wood fibers are compacted to form a single layer. The shape and pattern dictate how the bone is then placed onto the base alongside the wood, which is either sheesham, more commonly known as rosewood, or mango. For complex and original patterns like the frame in your CAUSEBOX, artisans generally take four to five hours to complete a single piece!

The incredible techniques required to produce a horn and bone product must be learned through firsthand experience, and to have the skill is to have a means of employment and of preserving a rich cultural history.

Nearly 2,000 small shops, cloistered together in a neighborhood of Sambhal, are famous for this vintage skill. Many of the artisans here are over 60, and they have fewer pupils since the global market has changed and drawn younger generations into the cities. 

On a stroll through Sambhal, you will find artisans hard at work and others taking breaks on terraces overlooking the streets where horn and bone is still the primary craft. Many of these artisans come from families of woodcarvers. In some cases, the owners of the workshops are young men who have inherited the businesses from their grandfathers. Each company or workshop has anywhere from 50 to 200 artisans working for them. Some are on-staff; but the majority are employed as orders come in, depending on the demand.

Wood carving in India has a tradition perhaps even richer than horn and bone. Archaeologists have dug up remains that date back to the 3rd Century A.D., indicating that wooden carvings have been a nearly permanent fixture of India’s history. In more recent years, wooden doors became a popular medium for artisans (and their sponsors) to make into elaborate centerpieces, intricately carved to display a customer’s family history, social status, or personal sense of style. Today’s artisans are working on smaller canvases, but still producing pieces as ornate as the doors which still line many of India’s streets today.

The wood is stored in open air warehouses, where it’s sorted and stacked according to the variety. Before it’s carved, it’s sanded and prepped. Once the shape is carved, the artisans sit at a pedal-powered machine, spinning the block of wood, making smaller, more precise incisions. Once the carving is complete, it’s whitewashed and then painted or stained. Often brass and other metal touches are added to produce a contrast against the wood.

Mohammad Ayub has been working as an artisan for over 20 years in the same workshop, where he now oversees a team of 150 artisans specializing in brass inlay. Everything from wooden tables, boxes, and bowls are accentuated with brass and metal. It’s detailed, meticulous work that requires a layer of metal to be embedded into the wood and filed down.

“I learned how to do this as a young man, at the age of eleven or so. A gentleman who lived in the same neighborhood as me taught me,” he says. When asked if he’d like to see any changes in his work today, he replies, “I want more work. I wish there was more work.” He smiles. He has a daughter and son. Will they take up this line? He hesitates. “Wood-carving may not carry its legacy forward. While the workshops are brimming with activity, today’s youth in Saharanpur prefer to drive rickshaws or move into cities in search of money and bustling activity than do their father’s or grandfather’s work.

“It pays more, it’s easier, and it’s in higher demand,” the workshop owner says.

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This is where Mela Artisans makes its biggest impact. By contemporizing traditional designs, Mela helps artisans create products that can sell consistently across the globe. Beyond providing a marketing platform and access to customers and retailers in the United States, the team helps workshops manage production time and quality so they can consistently meet the competitive demands of today’s consumers. Christina Marinconti from Mela explains, “It’s challenging to work with artisan groups in Sambahl because they’re remote, they don’t have access to electricity or Internet all the time like we’re accustomed to. So we have people who are on the ground providing training, feedback, and management and helping them communicate with us.”

Mela Artisans follows the same principles that guide all of our favorite brands—they provide exceptional benefits and resources to their team of artisans, but first and foremost, they provide sustainable work while preserving beloved traditional techniques. The company was founded by a father-daughter team of Indian descent, and now the two of them work tirelessly to grow the brand so more artisans will remain employed for generations to come. They are committed to employing women and men equally—typically, over 60% of their artisans are women—and they work with women’s groups to maximize the impact they have in their communities. With a profound understanding of culture and commitment to providing a viable, sustainable alternative to the onslaught of global manufacturing jobs in big cities, the Mela Artisans frame in your CAUSEBOX is a handcrafted piece with a rich, important story. It also celebrates another one of our favorite traditions—framing and preserving favorite photos or pieces of art.

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John is the managing editor at CAUSEBOX and a traveling writer who lives on the road with his dog, Hank.