Uzramma writes about traditional markets


TRADITIONAL MARKETS, INDRANET JOURNAL, VOL 4, NO 5, 1995, published in March 1996, by Uzramma, the founder of Dastkar Andhra

In considering local markets, angadis, santhas and haats, an important aspect to be borne in mind is that they are part of a tradition of economic activity that has a continuity over millennia.

Here I will only look at them from the point of view of the producer of goods, the artisan and craftsperson.

Of course in the local bazaar the artisans play only one part, along with the farmers, providers of services and traders, entertainers, bankers and so on. Each individual may be more than one of these at a time, and both buyer and seller.


Dastkar Craft Festival- August 2010 Artisan production and marketing

Artisan production is household based, with the participation of old and young, men and women, according to their abilities. When the selling place of the product the neighbourhood, peopled with familiar faces in familiar surroundings, when the customer can be placed as belonging to a particular neighbouring village, town, family or community, with known needs, preferences and tastes, the activity of production is part of a calm and anxiety-free process.

Many of our traditional industries have in common the use of a freely available, easily regenerated raw material, and the requirement and encouragement of a high degree of skill in production. Local bazaars cater to the first requirement by trading at the same time in raw materials and in finished goods, so that the artisan is both a buyer and seller. Being close by and familiar to the producer, the bazaar can make the customer and producer link direct, with the likes and dislikes of one and the capabilities of the other a matter of direct negotiation.

Marketing too, in the context of household production, linked with the local markets, is a very different affair from that in the commercial sphere. It is not a matter of anxiety. There are many things made for which the need and requirement is set by tradition and ritual, pots for dassehra, saris of the appropriate pattern for particular jatis, tie dyed headcloths for Malas and Madigas, etc.

The direct nature of these interactions, their ease and familiarity, the terms employed by us in describing them – such as household, cottage, small scale and so on – sometimes blind us to the large volume of goods, the large number of transactions, and the far reach of this mode of trade.

The tradition

Historically not only India but this whole region, has engaged in production of goods which were bought, sold and transported over long distances, retaining their value even in far off locations. The cotton fabrics of India, the silks of China, the leather goods of Morocco, were as much for local use as for export. The small santhas and angadis were links in an outward flow from households to urban centres, both overland and overseas.

This network was a complex series of interactions and relationships between different communities which specialized in a particular part of the production process: for example in textile production there were whole communities that lived by making the brushes for the spreading of starch on the warp threads before the weaving stage and others who made only the reeds for the loom.

The Banjaras were a community that specialized in transport, making it their life, trading cotton from Marathwada eastwards to the Coromandel coast in their bail bandis and bringing salt back on their return. There was also river transport and many distant centres were linked in ways that are mysterious to us today, through the flows and currents of the mighty rivers, the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Godavari and Krishna.

Each bazaar had its own character, its own people and products, depending on the slow evolution of tastes and preference in each area and many other factors: the raw materials locally available, the particular quality of the grass, bamboo and palm leaf, the local wood and the minerals in the earth and also the water that enhanced the particular pigments and dyes made from the local vegetation and stones. The red dye of Machlipatnam, for instance, was famous, and could not be got at points further south down the coast.

The bazaars evolved over time, located in a particular spot convenient for meeting and transport. They were the places where news was exchanged and discussed, ideas and opinions formed and prices settled according to season, taste, need and solvency. After harvests both farmers and farm workers have more money, and the markets are full of produce. During the rainy season the weekly market will not be held at all, or only in an abbreviated form.

Local annual jatras, connected with particular deities, specialize in certain products offered for sale, certain entertainments or services connected with a particular community – the Kesalapur jatra of the Gond community of Adilabad, for example, will have cast brass things for the Gonds, made by the Ojhas, whose traditional skill is wax casting in brass, while the Shampur jatra nearby specializes in goods for the Matharias, silk yarn in their preferred colours of red, pink, ochre and orange for their geometric embroidery and cowrie shells for added decoration.  

Baneshwar Fair, opposite

Raw materials such as bamboo and cotton grow freely in most parts of the country. With clay for pots, they are the basic materials of our largest traditional industries. Bamboo is an essential part of people’s houses as reinforcement, roof structure and partition walls. It is also used for storage and transport vehicles and household utensils. Bamboo culling from the forests was the prerogative of the forest jatis, adivasis, medhris and so on.

If forest use is restricted to the needs of local markets and local artisan communities, the users will cherish and protect the forest

The harvesting was governed by strict rules, traditions and rituals and these practices made sound practical sense. Cutting bamboos during the waning half of the lunar month ensures that it will be pest free, because the insects that infest bamboo are rife when the sap rises during the waxing moon. Only the stout ripe outer stems of the bamboo clump are of use to the artisan user, while the tender inner core is left to regenerate, but when the user is a paper mill the harvesting is indiscriminate, governed only by economics, so the whole clump is taken and the bamboo dies. If forest use can be restricted to the needs of local markets and local artisan communities, as it was until the end of the eighteenth century, the users will themselves cherish and protect the forest.

Cotton of various kinds, qualities and hues was grown and this not only met the needs of local spinners, but was traded to far off locations. Local cotton was spun and woven for local needs, while there were varieties that could produce the fine yarn of the legendary Dacca muslin and even now produce fine khadi with hand charkas and handlooms.

When it is grown in traditional fashion, cotton is a generous plant which yields plentiful supplies of a fibre that is particularly adapted for the technology it fostered, developed over millenia for those particular qualities. Cotton was the stuff of our biggest industry, employing millions of people and households, traded in hundreds of thousands of small markets. The export of cotton cloth from this country is as old as ships and seafaring and provided cotton clothing for much of the old world.

The scale and size of the industry was only possible because of its wide spread, its roots in local culture and traditions, the simplicity and ease of its technology and the relationships between those involved in each part of the making and trading process. Export was a part of the network of traditional markets, but only the surplus was traded. Large stocks of finished produce, the bane of commercial systems, did not exist, or were low and dispersed. Both the benefits and the brunt of trade were distributed.

But new economic policies favour exports over local use

Weavers in one village were linked by custom and tradition to buyers in nearby villages. In Adilabad, within living memory, a bridal trousseau would be ordered from the family weaver and handed over with ceremonies and with pride and respect on either side. When the commercial system began to extract raw materials for transport to distant manufacturing centres, local markets and local production began to decline, and the long established links between local producer communities and their resource bases to weaken. New economic policies continue to favour exports over local use, and have reversed the flow of goods, using the local markets as dumping grounds for mass-produced poor quality manufactured products. The history of economic policy needs to be examined. We need to question evolving trends and the factors that dictate the policies of today in comparison with those that governed policies of the past. What are the factors that make petroleum products so cheap that a child’s dress in polyester made in Calcutta can sell for Rs 20 in Nizamabad bail bazaar kilometres away?

Highways and railway systems as extractive mechanisms

The highways and railway systems of this country were planned for furthering the aims of a colonial regime, for the extraction of produce from remote areas and the flooding of remote local markets with mass produced goods. They were not meant for neighbourly communication between nearby villages and towns. Today we work with the same transport system, the same economic theory and structure of taxation which damaged our network of local markets and our dispersed manufacturing base, working on exploitation rather than export of surplus. Our exports of raw cotton and cotton yarn are rising, while handloom cloth production has fallen drastically.

In the case of cotton the links between cotton and the local markets were weakened when cotton began to be exported to England in the late 18th century. Up to then varieties that gave fine smooth strong yarn and yielded over long periods had been cultivated for their value to local spinners. The export trade demanded quantity in a short period and did not discriminate with regard to quality, so the cotton that yielded over a long period, meeting the needs of local markets and local spinners was abandoned for the coarser high yielding bengalense* variety, dealing a death blow to both local spinning and local marketing of cotton.

Now, an abstract entity named ‘the market’ arbitrarily dictates prices and preferences

Local markets are an essential part of an economy based on dispersed production, providing places for different peoples and cultures and for a variety of products. Their events and artefacts can be perceived through the senses – seen, heard, smelled, felt. Questions of taste and value are decided there in consultation with tradition and this direct personal experience.

In contrast, in the commercial system, an abstract entity named ‘the market’ arbitrarily dictates prices and preferences. Someone who seems to know and to have authority, the advertiser, tells us that a certain shampoo, toothpaste or brand of sunglasses is important to make us attractive and acceptable and sells us a product that has no relationship with our daily life. We have other ways of washing our hair, cleaning our teeth, of keeping the sun out of our eyes. It is our prerogative to assign value to goods and the local marketplace is an important instrument in our choice.

Uzramma concludes:

In the present conditions the world commercial system is presented as an inevitable part of industrial activity. In the west, where most of our ideas originate, all political theory of right or left takes it as a given axiom. It is true that in other countries traditional ways of economic activity have been thoroughly rooted out. But even there a wind of change is blowing towards a gentler concern for the earth and its creatures. This is a welcome process but none the less foreign to our culture and traditions. We need to study our own ways and take our own particular path. #

*Further reference to bengalense cotton is made in an extract from a very interesting book “Hybrid: the history and science of plant breeding”, by Noël Kingsbury, University of Chicago, 2009


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