Bell Metal Kartals of West Bengal
BY: SUN STAFF
Bell Metal Kartals, Bengal
May 18, 2011 CANADA (SUN)
Archaeological evidence indicates that ancient Bengal's metallurgists have practiced the art and science of metal work since as early as the 2nd Millennium B.C. Working with some of the earliest known metal alloys, they were also producing high quality bell metals, which were used in a range of household utensils and religious paraphernalia.
In more recent centuries, Bengal's bell metal producers were known to be manufacturing high quality kartalas for use in temple devotions. To this day, the Vaisnavas place a very high value on bell metal kartals, which produce an unmistakably clear, chiming ring that elevates kirtan and bhajan to even greater heights.
Over the last century, the art of working with bell metal has declined, becoming nearly a lost art in Bengal. Thankfully, there are numerous organizations today encouraging the tribal artists of Bengal to resurrect their bell metal industry, and they are now again producing, albeit in limited quantities, some very fine bell metal kartals. Not surprisingly, the majority of these are being acquired by ISKCON devotees.
In 1999, there was a very interesting and important documentary film produced by the Aurora Film Corporation, entitled "Bell Metal & Other Stories". Narrated in Bengali with English subtitles, this 30 minute documentary focuses on the Bengali tradition of Khagrai Kansa, the art of non-cast bell metal production.
Over the last ten or fifteen years, we have heard of several different efforts begun by individuals devotees, who are intent on rediscovering and helping to re-establish the art of bell metal kartal making. One such devotee is Vidagdha Madhava das, who has written the following article, which is posted on Biswendu Nanda's blog. This blogspot documents the efforts of a group known as Kalaboti Mudra. They are working with folk-tribal communities of West Bengal, unearthing and documenting traditional knowledge and technologies for various crafts, including bell metal kartal production.
Pure Bell-Metal Kartals
BY VIDAGDHA MADHAVA DAS of ISKCON
Pure Bell-metal Kartals - An endangered species
"In the early 70's, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada was sent to Nabadwip to pick up some specially made kartals for him. On receiving and playing these kartals (which had silver in them), this disciple told me that Srila Prabhupada commented that "hammered (pure bell-metal) kartals were the only kartals worth anything." The problem today is that pure bell-metal kartals hardy exist.
Many devotees don't know what pure bell metal kartals are. This is because the metal formulation and manufacturing process changed in Bengal in the early '70s to cut costs, and most likely, to facilitate mass production to meet the demand of Srila Prabhupada's exploding worldwide movement. Unless you have heard properly made pure bell metal kartals, there's no reference point to judge what is being produced today. But I can tell you, there is a world of difference.
I don't have a musician's ear, but I can hardly tolerate many of these klanging horrible-sounding kartals that have been proliferated by brass merchants who could care less about the quality of kirtans in the worldwide sankirtan movement.
Before I came to ISKCON, I was staying at a farm commune in the Caribbean, when a travelling devotee visited us. His name was Lalita Prasad das, and he had recently returned from a tour in South America with Hanuman Swami. The morning after he arrived, I was hiking up a mountain trail to fill a burlap bag with avocados for the commune. About halfway up the hillside, I heard a sound so remarkable that it stopped me in my tracks. The sound coming from the house at the bottom of the hill was not only sweet; that sound cut through the ether more cleanly than any sound I'd ever heard in my life. It seemed like this sound was making it all the way out to the atmospheric layers that encircle the planet!
I practically ran down the hill to find out what this guy was playing. It turns out that he had some pure bell metal kartals that he had gotten from Hanuman Swami in South America. I was so impacted that my mind immediately made plans to go to India just for the purpose of getting a pair of these kartals.
Years later I did make it to India, but to my disappointment, none of the brass merchants had these kartals. After going through all the shops, big and small in Nabadwip Dham, I only found one or two shops that had some rough-looking hammered kartals. I bought some, but they weren't anywhere close to the standard of the kartals I had heard in the Caribbean. I did hear, however, some comparable old kartals at a Gaudiya Math in Nabadwip.
A few years later, I saw some old kartals hanging in a pot shop in Kalighat in Calcutta. Evidently, a widow had traded the kartals for some pots. The kartals must have been over 50 years old, as one side was worn straight from many years of playing. The sound of these kartals was very sweet. I have heard that hammered kartals do get sweeter the more you play them, whereas the newer mass-produced ones may sound OK at the beginning, but, after a while, they go off.
Anyone who has spent time in India can appreciate that the business mentality there is to cut costs in manufacturing to increase profits even by a few rupees. Someone in Nepal even told me that the brass merchants there were going from village to village trading new cheaper metal pots for the old pots so they could get the more expensive metal out of the old pots. I found some old kartals in Katmandu with the old metal, but these thinner kartals are not meant for kirtan.
A kartal maker in Nabadwip told me that the current kartal mix is 75/25 brass and tin and that they are cast. There used to be 8 metals in the Bengali cone-style hammered kartals, including copper and silver. One young guy even tried to hammer some samples for me, but the formula must have been off. At that point, my health, visa and resources ran out about the same time and I had to leave India.
Many years later, these clanging, horrible-sounding kirtan-destroying kartals won't let me forget this project. So I am looking for anyone who might be interested in helping me reestablish the making of pure bell-metal kartals. I am not interested in making a lot of money here; I just want to improve the kirtan worldwide.
Lord Chaitanya's kirtan must have been very sweet with these pure bell metal kartals. Kartals not only keep time; they introduce a vibration into the environment that overpowers whatever vibration is going on and opens the door for the Holy Name to reach the ears of anyone within hearing distance.
To save this traditional Instrument of Mahaprabhu's kirtan we would have to locate an old man in Nabadwip who can remember the old formula of the pure bell metal and create that. Then someone has to be located who can hammer quality kartals from this old formula metal. The next stage would be to set up a cottage industry where younger men can be trained in this art of making pure bell metal kartals. Otherwise, this art of making these kartals may be lost."
In our next segment, we will provide some detailed information on the technology of bell metal work, including a description of the alloys, production processes, etc.
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