“The art of antiques is one of the most revered forms of elite art globally,” says Shamsu, the owner of one of the metal handicraft stores in the top floor of Gulshan 2 DCC market. His store is teemed with beautiful statues, ‘diya’, boxes, jewellery, etc. many of which date back to as early as the Mughal era, or even from the era of the Buddhist viharas. His store also holds leather handicrafts and Persian-style rugs, a pre-partition delicacy.
The entire floor of Gulshan 2 DCC market is neatly lined with such shops displaying thousands of exclusive, elite handicraft items, mostly made of metal — brass or bell metal — and some made of wood. Replicas of Buddha and deities like Shiva, Durga and Ganesh, old compasses from dead ships, binoculars, daggers, dice to make jewellery, lamps, padlocks that looks like fish, jewellery boxes, replicas of swans, horses and elephants, wooden chests, and even items that make one’s head spin to predict their possible use — it’s all there. Most might not have any utility at all other than being showpieces for their immaculate designs and unique looks.
An antique is an old collectible item, usually objects which show some degree of craftsmanship, or a certain attention to design. The word “antique” literally means “aged, venerable”. It is derived from the Latin word antiques meaning “ancient, former, of olden times; old, long in existence, old-fashioned”. Antique items are collected or deemed desirable because of their age, beauty, rarity, condition, utility, personal emotional connection, and/or other unique features. It is an object that represents a previous era or time period in human society.
Thus antique art has always been elite and its value construed by enthusiasts — those who invest in an antique piece are people who romance the bygone era, much like time-based fiction pieces. People can become collectors of antiques because the items hold sentimental value. For example, a woman holds on to a ring that is given to her by a great grandmother or a table that’s been in the family for three generations.
Some people also like the chase of hunting down a good or an old find while some people buy antiques to decorate their homes.
Buyers who stroll by the Gulshan 2 antique stores often find it hard to distinguish between an actual antique piece and an imitation. “But we can tell of course,” says Shamsu, “Sometimes these knock-offs are made purely to celebrate the artisan rather than simply to cut costs and make profits.” This is a common sentiment shared by handicraft salesmen, which goes to show their veneration for the art beyond its profitability.
Yet the market for these handicrafts is dying. Other than a few diplomats and tourists, very few buyers actually make purchases despite the excellent quality. The cause — high prices, especially because it lacks any form of government patronage necessary for an artistic industry to thrive.
Like Shamsu many of the handicraft entrepreneurs are aware of the downward demand but have been in this business for generations and refuse to let it go.
“In most countries governments promote their handicraft and tourism industry as a means to earn revenue. When people think of Bangladeshi handicrafts nowadays they only think of boutique outlets. While those are great, this is the real type of handicraft after all.” laments Shamsu. These days brass needs to be imported to cut production costs of metal handicrafts, which further takes away the potential it has for the economy.
Photos: Sazzad Ibne Sayed