The ‘vegetarian silver' that devoured lacs of livelihoods
Thousands of traditional Varkh makers have lost their livelihood to machines and a fetish for ‘vegetarian’ silver. In the last four years, over 1.5 lakh Varkh makers may have lost their livelihood
“Vark, also called Varak (silver leaf) or Varkh, is super fine filigree foil sheet of pure metals, typically silver but sometimes gold, used to decorate sweets and food, to make them look more appetising,” is what the Internet tells us.
But it also tells us that the ‘thinnest silver sheet is used mainly to increase the life of the sweets and is also known to have the ability to increase immunity against various bacterial infections’.
A little more search yields the information that all over Europe and the Western World, aluminium foil replaced tin foils at the beginning of the last century; and that aluminium foils provide ‘complete insulation to light, oxygen, moisture and bacteria, making it the perfect product to be used in food and medicine packaging. Other applications of aluminium foil include beverage, confectionary, personal care, health care and other industrial uses.’
Swiss Chocolatiers began using aluminium foils to wrap Toblerone, the three-cornered chocolates, as early as in 1921. The insulation possibly helped extend the life of the edibles.
The rich and the royalty would seem to have favoured silver and gold foils but for much of the same reasons. They enhanced the look and helped preserve the food a little longer.
Edible gold and silver leaves are considered "biologically inert," meaning they pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed. And both are available online on Amazon, the gold leaves priced at Rs 10,000 or so for 25 sheets and silver leaves for just around Rs 500 or less.
The Internet also takes one to an article written by BJP leader and former union minister Maneka Gandhi. Varakh is not vegetarian, she wrote and gave a graphic description of how it was being made in India, mostly by Muslims, she claimed. They felt the intestine of live cattle and slaughtered the ones they found suitable. The silver is then placed between the intestine and pounded, she added.
She writes, “The varakh industry is a huge one. India uses over 300 tonnes of silver leaves in paan, chaywanprash, tobacco products, ayurvedic medicines, mithais and temples. It is used in Germany on food (the food number is E 175), in France on photo frames.
In Japan it is everywhere – interiors, tea, instruments, frescos, temples…is used on chocolates, cocktails and liquors – German Goldwasser and the Swiss Goldschlager are examples -- soups, salads, ice creams and coffees.
Maneka Gandhi’s article, which appeared in 2016, it would appear, prompted the Government to ban ‘hand-made’ silver foil and issue stringent guidelines and specifications for silver leaves permitted for use in edible products.
The article also revolted consumers, who began to demand ‘machine-made and vegetarian Varkh’. Sweet shops began displaying signboards asserting that the Varkh they were using was untouched by ‘dirty human hands’.
Maneka Gandhi was effusive in acknowledging the role of Surendra Karnavat from Jaipur. Karnavat, she wrote, was a diamond jeweller based in New York and had worked hard for 15 years to develop a machine which could be used for making perfect silver leaves. A patriotic Indian, Karnavat righteously informed that he had turned down an offer from China to make his machines there!
The claim, on the face of it, was far fetched because machines to make aluminium leaves were patented and used a century ago. But Karnavat claimed to have expressed his wish to popularise the machine in India. He had met the then Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and was assured help. But when the help he sought was not forthcoming, he turned to Maneka Gandhi, when she became a union minister.
Varkh makers went to court following the ban, claiming that there was no truth in the government’s assertion. They also pointed out that while they did use a thick slab of cattle hide on which the silver sheets were pounded, the leather was used only after cleaning and processing.
The court relented and asked them to convince the government of their stand. But the damage was done. In the last four years, approximately 1.5 lakh Varkh makers are estimated to have lost their livelihood. Thousands of them were from Uttar Pradesh, concentrated in Jaunpur, Varanasi, Lucknow, Prayagraj (Allahabad), Moradabad, Sambhal and Meerut towns of UP and were traditional artisans.
Karnavat had claimed that ‘machine-made’ Varkh would generate employment for at least two lakh people, mostly women. Why should machines require women? Neither Maneka Gandhi nor Karnavat has a satisfactory explanation.
But it is not clear how much employment Karnavat’s machines have generated and the volume of silver leaves India has started exporting—another claim that he had made. India, he had told Maneka Gandhi, would become the world’s export hub for silver leaves. The sky was the limit.
“We did not make silver. They were supplied by traders. We merely used the skill handed over to us through generations,” explains a dejected Varkh maker in Bareilly. Prematurely greying, the middle-aged Chand Mian is still crestfallen and is clueless about how to rebuild his life.
They tried pounding silver on interleaf sheets (fine paper used in books to protect illustrations) to allay suspicion of ‘non-vegetarian Varkh’ but how would the consumers know what they were using? The Government’s notification also wanted every square metre of the silver sheet to weigh 2.8 grams and purity of silver to be 999/1000. The interleaves were to be imported as well. They gave up.
Narrow lanes and by-lanes in UP towns would earlier resonate with the sound of pounding. But the sound has been silenced for the past few years. It was therefore baffling to hear the familiar sound emanating from a house in a narrow lane recently.
Curiosity led me to Chand Mian. He sheepishly admitted that he had done this all his life and feels restless with his occupation gone. Whenever he feels particularly restless and finds himself at his wit’s end, he confessed, he would make is way to the old workshop and spent some time pounding whatever he could lay his hands on.
Life without his hammer and without the familiar sound had created a void he is unable to fill up. He turns up at his old workshop, therefore, to relive his old life.