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Turning back the wheel of time
On a hot and humid afternoon, an elderly lungi-clad man slogs in his tiny workshop without the luxury of a fan. Not because he can't afford one but because, as he explains perspiring profusely, it would blow dust particles into his eyes and mouth and hamper his work.
The work that Ismail Dawood Kacchi refers to is his undying obsession. The 63-year-old is the lone surviving bullock cart wheel-maker in Panvel, a town of around 4. 5 lakh, 56 km from Mumbai. Inured to the changes around him, he passionately carries on a virtually anachronistic profession which his ancestors started over two centuries ago. All his neighbours, who were also into cartwheel-making earlier, have abandoned the pursuit and switched to other trades. But Kacchi has clung on.
"As a child, I remember as many as 22 families in Panvel were into this profession," recalls the bearded family patriarch. "My children keep asking me to stop working and sit at home. But I can't imagine not making wheels as long as my limbs are functioning." Kacchi's six children are into more contemporary trades - one of his daughters is a doctor and another is a lecturer while his three sons run a furniture business. His grandson, 20-year-old Mustafa, is a computer engineering student.
Kacchi's passion for wheel-making has earned this devout Muslim many admirers among his largely Hindu customers and they don't just comprise the nameless farmers from districts like Ahmednagar and Satara who come all the way to Panvel to buy wheels, but devotees of Lord Jagannath for whom Kacchi has made chariots. "I set the Lord Jagannath rath rolling last year. I never had reservations about creating the rath though I am a pious Muslim," he says. A regular visitor to sufi saints' dargahs across the country, he was recently at Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti's immensely revered dargah at Ajmer, and one of the blessings he sought there was longevity for his profession.
A school dropout, Kacchi learnt the art of cartwheel-making from his maternal grandfather, Ismail Jumma. He remembers roaming through the thick forests of Raigad district, looking for the perfect teakwood for the wheels. Originally from Kutch in Gujarat, several Kacchi families, he recalls, migrated two centuries ago to Panvel after a massive earthquake hit their district. At that time, Panvel was a busy dock and the migrants worked there as masons, small technicians and loaders. As ships stopped docking at Panvel due to a drop in the water level on the Panvel coast, they took to other trades, many joining cartwheel making. "It was a booming business. There was a time when we would work almost round the clock to meet orders. Now it has dwindled to making just a couple of wheels a month," says Kacchi. A pair of teakwood wheels fetches between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000. His unswerving loyalty to his profession has earned the elderly cartwheel maker many accolades, including the local municipality's annual Panvel Gaurav (Pride of Panvel) award last year.
In 2007, the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh felicitated him at a function, hailing him as a bridge between the ancient and the modern, a cog in the wheel of the rural economy. At another felicitation, Ajinkya Pawar, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar's nephew, was so impressed with him that he ordered a dozen bullock cart wheels to distribute among farmers in Baramati. But the most glorious moment so far, Kacchi says, was when he heard of a museum in Dubai stocking a miniature wheel created by him. "I am told this wheel adorns the India section at the museum. I am happy my handicraft represents India," says the artisan, who rues the fact that cartwheel making is not recognised as a small-scale industry and is therefore neither insured nor eligible for bank loans. Interestingly, Kacchi claims that wheel-making and production of bullock carts on a mass scale could help arrest farmers' suicides. "If each farmer owned a bullock cart, he could earn his bread by ferrying things during the non-agricultural season. This would supplement their income and free farmers from the clutches of exploitative moneylenders," he explains. "Unfortunately, the government doesn't encourage farmers to buy bullock carts, which are an environment-friendly mode of transport, best suited to rural landscape."
As we leave Kacchi's workshop, he picks up a chisel to give the finishing touches to a wheel. There is no full stop for this devotee of an ancient trade. Fortunately for him, one of his sons, Hanif, has promised to carry on the profession till market forces muzzle it completely.
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