What’s in a bell?

On a recent field visit, I went to a town called Jura, where a large cluster of copper bell artisans live and work. Our main purpose was to visit an old, very talented artisan who has been making copper bells all his life. Haji Valimamad Suleman Luhar is known for having an ear for tuning bells like nobody else in town, and has also very generously shared his skills with the younger generation. My coworker joked that this artisan is so focused when he is tuning his bells that he wouldn’t hear it if there was an explosion outside his house. I watched him for a long time that day, assembling and tuning bells with his hammer until they sounded “just right.”

Haji Valimamad Suleman Luhar in his workshop

Haji Valimamad Suleman Luhar, his son Kasam Valimamad and son-in-law Hamzabhai all work together in one workshop, at the entrance to their house. The workshop itself is quite rough, with scrap metal piled on one side, metal cut in different sizes strewn alongside a variety of tools and half assembled bells. Where the artisan sits, there is a deep patch of sand, where tools used for assembly and tuning are fixed and changed as needed. I was fortunate that I was able to see the complete transformation of a plain, gray, flat piece of metal to a beautifully shaped, copper colored bell. I walked away with a souvenir keychain that day, and my car keys will soon thank me for it!

Process

1. Recycled metal is gathered from junk yards and/or industry waste. This is in the form of metal sheets (more expensive), metal barrels or metal parts from old appliances like fridges.

recycled metal used as raw material

2. The metal is treated and manually cut into different sizes and shapes, depending on the size of bell being made. There are 3 standard parts: the rounded top, main body and the ring on the top.

3. The bell is then assembled by thrusting the right size tool into the sand, placing the metal on the flat surface of the tool, and hammering the metal together until all 3 pieces of the bell are assembled and joined. There is no welding in this process, all work by hand.

4. Now, the assembled bell goes to the women, who dip the piece in a mud-water mixture, cover the bell with a brass powder mixture, and then cover the whole bell with a cotton and mud pack. The brass powder gives it its unique color/shading, and the cotton-mud pack protects it during firing.

mud coating
brass powder coating
cotton-mud coating

5. The covered bell now goes to the kiln, which is blazing hot, and the copper bells are placed inside the kiln and turned every few minutes until firing is complete.

A new energy efficient kiln

6. Next, the bell is removed and placed on the ground to cool down.

just removed from the fire for cooling

7. It is placed in water after a few minutes, for the final cool down. When the bell touches the water, there is a loud sputtering and steaming as the heat releases from the bell.

sizzle sizzle

8. After the bell is removed from the water, the cotton and mud pack is cracked open using a small hammer, revealing the fired bell with its new coloration and fused joints.

9. Now for the final and very crucial stage of the process: tuning of the metal bell. A wooden stick is added inside the bell, and the edges of the bell are hammered until the desired sound is obtained when the bell is rung. After a little polishing/finishing, these bells are ready for the market.

bell tuning

There were two reasons Khamir had planned this visit to Jura. Haji Valimamad Suleman Luhar had built a new energy efficient kiln in their workshop that my coworker wanted to examine, and we also wanted them to test a new brass powder we has acquired. We were able to get both done together as they tested the new brass powders on two bells, and fired them in their new kiln.

This particular craft technique is an interesting example of how waste material can be used to make beautiful crafts that can be both purposeful or decorative. Traditionally, they are used by pastoral communities as identification for their animals, but are now available in all shapes and sizes. The texture, coloration and sound are its major draws, and I was surprised to learn that one of their biggest export markets is the U.S. Today, these bells are available not only as individual bells, but also as decorative chimes, and in my short time here, they have quickly become one of my go-to gift items from our Khamir shop.

Jilna spent the first half of her life in Nairobi, Kenya, and then moved to the suburbs of Washington DC for high school. New York City was home for five years as she worked towards fulfilling her dream to work in the entertainment business. A career in television led her back home to Maryland, and her involvement with South Asian organizations--both personal and professional--remained a constant through these transitions. Additionally, she spent her spare time volunteering with small organizations, and also joined the board of a local non profit for the chance to aid a group with a different mission. Despite having deep connections to her culture, Jilna has never visited India, and is thrilled with the opportunity to live and work in India supporting Khamir's initiatives for the coming year.

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