The Allure of Glass

The Allure of Glass
The Allure of Glass

India’s premier city for glass is Firozabad in UP. While admiring a really splendid chandelier, I had innocently asked if it was imported from Belgium, or some other European city. The person I asked was a bit taken aback and irritated by my question and said that India had been making chandeliers from as far back as the Mughal era. He patiently explained that the chandelier mentioned by me had 55,000 pieces of glass and had been designed and made in India. He also added that most of the fancy chandeliers that we see in showrooms and hotels these days are usually made in Firozabad and that India also exports them to other countries. Thoroughly chastened, I apologised and expressed  a desire, that if it was at all possible, I would like to visit Firozabad to see how these chandeliers are made and assembled. A visit was immediately planned for the very next day.

Reaching Firozabad on a hot and sultry morning, everywhere we looked there were shops selling coloured decorative glassware. Interspersed between these shops were factories for creating small and large glassware. Famous since Mughal times, Firozabad now known for the manufacture of glass objects of all kinds, was little more than a village, till not so long ago. Now, with demand for glass objects growing in India as well as export possibilities abroad, it is a bustling city crowded and full of life!

 The route from Agra to Firozabad had taken me across the Jawahar Bridge, to the other side of the Yamuna—through chaotic traffic consisting of trucks, lorries loaded with camels and others overflowing with hay. Here like most of India, everyone was determined to go first! But all those who decide to visit Firozabad can take heart, for as one manages to extricate oneself from the chaos, the road widens appreciably—this is the National Highway leading to Kanpur. Through the Babul trees that lined both sides of the highway, we could could see mustard fields in bloom.

It took us only an hour to reach Firozabad, a city built by Firoze Shah Tughlak, who is buried there and whose Tomb can be visited from Agra—a distance of about 40 km. There were literally hundreds of shops on the main road and in the lanes, piled high with shelves full of colourful glassware in jewel- colours. Chandeliers big and small were strung up on hooks, mostly as samples, as people seldom come to buy single pieces.

I was informed that retailers from all over the country visit the city to place their orders, choosing designs from catalogues, after checking the quality of the samples on display.  The goods are then carefully packed in straw and despatched by road, accounting for the presence of such a large number of trucks  in the city as well as the enormous quantities of hay being transported in this directions. Within the city, horse and bullock drawn carts seemed to be going back and forth between factories and showrooms.

I also learnt about the raw materials and where they come from. For the manufacture of glassware—manufacturers have to bring in lime, sand and soda, from other states—the lime and sand come from Rajasthan, while the soda ash comes from Gujarat. The colours come from other states and some are also imported for fancy decorative pieces such as vases or glass animals. The imported colours are more expensive and the items made with them, retail at much higher prices.

All the factories in Firozabad use the glass blowing process in the products that they manufacture. However there are different types of furnaces in the city, such as the Japanese style ‘pot furnace’ used in the manufacture of art objects such as vases, bowls and tumblers. Furnaces are usually powered by coal or oil and may run 24 hours, depending on the requirement. Closure of a furnace means loss of a full day, since it takes that long to reach the desired heat.

The skilled labour required in glass factories appears to be easily available locally. Groups of 8 men working in 6-hour shifts, can easily make a dozen tumblers, or even 150 dozen in one shift. Payment is according to the output and an average group of 8 workers can earn upwards of Rs.2500 per day.

The bangle section has its own way of functioning and each group,consists of 28 workers. The average intake of each worker is about Rs 500 per day. But due to over production and less demand, bangle units close once a week - so Sunday’s are holidays. This is unlike the industrial units, which work every day of the week and may even have 3 shifts to cope with orders!

In recent years the bangle making units have often been ostracised for using child labour. This is because the groups who,take on the contracts often consist of one family. As in so many cases, this is the only way a child acquires enough technical skill by the time he is an adult.

The making of a bangle appears to be a highly complex exercise. First there is a plain ring, to which the embellishments are added one by one. A highly skilled hand is required for this work and considering how fragile and inexpensive a glass bangle is, it is obvious that a great many can be manufactured in a 6 hour shift. The glass bangle industry has strong competition from plastic and metal products and despite high skill and expertise, the workers are aware of the dwindling market, but I certainly hope that the traditional glass bangles remain for ever!