Gold-laden Indian brides defy prime minister as culture triumphs

Updated 29 January 2014

Gold-laden Indian brides defy prime minister as culture triumphs

MUMBAI, India: As the sound of traditional drums, trumpets and cymbals ushers Amrita Mannil into the wedding hall, she’s adorned by four finely crafted necklaces, rings, 16 bangles, a glistening belt, dangling chandelier earrings and a stone-encrusted headpiece to match the silk borders of her dress. She’s wearing about 800 grams (1.8 pounds) of gold.
Amid the music and the chanted prayers, a gold chain is placed around her neck as the 25-year-old advertising executive marries Vimal Mohan in a traditional Hindu ceremony attended by 500 friends and relatives in Kozhikode, about 112 miles from the city of Kochi in Kerala.
“Gold is an asset the girl carries,” 28-year-old Namitha Shyam, the bride’s older sister, said after last month’s ceremony. “The values, status and wealth of the family is represented by the gold the girl wears as she gets married. The more gold you wear, the more pride you have in your family.”
The jewelry worn by the bride is typical and represents the cultural and social affinity Indians have had toward gold for centuries, making the country the world’s largest consumer last year. Demand in India and China helped bullion to climb by more than $1,000 an ounce since 2000 and helped to curb this year’s 23 percent rout.
At the same time, the resilience of Indian demand, and the fact the nation imports almost all the bullion it uses, poses a challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as he seeks to trim a record current-account deficit and stem the rupee’s 15 percent slide this year.
Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram responded by raising import taxes three times this year to curb consumption which represented about 20 percent of world demand in 2012.
Prices more than doubled in India since 2008 and reached a record in August. The increase gave pause to Ramesh Babu, the 61-year-old father of the bride, who bought Amrita less gold than he did for her sister’s wedding five years ago. He bought 100 sovereigns, each weighing 8 grams. “We are moderate,” said Babu. “There are people who give 300 to 400 sovereigns.”
Indians purchase gold at festivals and for marriages as part of the bridal trousseau and as gifts in the form of jewelry. Demand will be 900 to 1,000 metric tons this year, from 864.2 tons in 2012, the World Gold Council says.
Demand in India has helped curb this year’s slump in gold prices after some investors lost faith in the metal, a traditional store of value, as global inflation remained low. Bullion plunged 23 percent this year to $1,290.20 an ounce on Friday, poised for its first annual retreat since 2000. Prices in rupees have declined only 1.7 percent.
The slump in London prices erased about $64 billion from global exchange-traded products, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Central banks added to gold reserves the last two years even as they lost about $573 billion in value since bullion peaked at $1,921 an ounce in September 2011. The $350 million PFR Gold Fund of billionaire John Paulson declined 62 percent this year through September.
For Indians, gold is not so much an investment as a cultural experience, said Pallavi Rao, assistant professor at the School of Communication, Manipal University, in south India.
“When you think about the great Indian wedding, you cannot think about it without all that gold jewelry,” said Rao, based in Manipal, about 250 miles from Bangalore. “Gold buying itself becomes part of the wedding ritual.”
Mannil’s family spent more than six hours selecting the chains and necklaces Amrita wore at the wedding. An Indian bride without gold “is like rice without salt: bland,” said Sheela Ramesh, her mother, while fiddling with her own Thali, or gold wedding locket.
“I got married in 1984, and the same tradition is being followed even now,” said Ramesh. “My parents gave me gold, and we give our daughters,” she said, as three other mothers, gathered at a pre-wedding ceremony to decorate Amrita’s hands with henna, nodded in agreement. “In our custom we wear only gold, no artificial jewelry.”
The insatiable appetite is good news for retailers such as Gitanjali Gems, Malabar Gold and Diamonds, Titan Industries, Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri and Kalyan Jewellers. The stores represent 10 percent of the market estimated at about 1 trillion rupees ($15.9 billion), Edelweiss Securities said in a report last month.
“In the long term, the fundamentals of gold demand are still intact,” said Haresh Soni, chairman of the All India Gems & Jewellery Trade Federation, which represents 300,000 jewelers and bullion dealers. “For Indians, gold buying is not just a cultural or traditional compulsion but also acts as social security. From birth to death, gold is involved in all aspects of our life and used in our prayers and rituals.”
To lure customers, jewelers are spending more on television and outdoor commercials and signing up Bollywood stars from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Award-winning South Indian actor Mohanlal is a brand ambassador along with actress Kareena Kapoor for Malabar Gold, which has 102 stores in the Middle East, India and Singapore.
The Babus purchased all their wedding gold from Malabar’s flagship store in Kozhikode, a city famous for being the first trade link between India and Europe after Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama landed on its shores.
“It helped that Mohanlal is my mom’s and fiance’s favorite actor,” said Amrita, drawing laughs from those gathered at the henna ceremony.
There are about 5 million weddings in India every year, said Prithviraj Kothari, managing director of Riddhisiddhi Bullions and a director with the Bombay Bullion Association. The average purchase is 200 grams (7.05 ounces) , he said.
The government is seeking to cut imports to 800 tons in the 12 months through March 31, from 845 tons a year earlier, to reduce the current-account deficit. The gap results mainly from bullion and crude oil imports, according to the Reserve Bank of India. The curbs caused a domestic gold shortage and buyers are paying a premium for supplies, according to the All India Gems & Jewellery Trade Federation.
“The more negative statements the government makes about gold, the more people are attracted toward it as they think that the government might ban imports,” said Bachhraj Bamalwa, a director with the trade group. Farmers also invest in gold because it helps when crops are poor and some rural people use it to store wealth rather than bank accounts, said Bamalwa.
Prospects for a better-than-average harvest are fueling demand. Rural India accounts for 60 percent of consumption and the best monsoon rain in six years has boosted rice, corn and cotton crops, increasing farmers’ incomes.
“A major chunk of our income goes in development of the next season’s crop and some of it is invested in gold, especially if there’s any marriage in the family,” said Sandeep Chakane, a sugarcane farmer from Bhigwan, a town about 100 kilometers from the city of Pune.
Futures traded in Mumbai surged more than fivefold since they began about a decade ago, reaching a record 35,074 rupees per 10 grams in August.
“Price is not an issue at all,” said Jyostnarani Sahoo, a 41-year-old mother from Angul in the eastern state of Odisha, who drove 15 miles with her husband to buy a necklace and earrings for her daughter. “In our tradition, it’s a prerequisite thing in weddings. Gold prices will only rise, so we didn’t want to delay it further.”
Higher tariffs and central-bank rules linking foreign purchases to re-exports may cut official gold imports in the second half of the year to less than 150 tons, from 478 tons a year earlier, said the federation’s Bamalwa.
That’s spurred smuggling from the Middle East, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Indian laborers working in the Middle East are acting as couriers for gangs in return for a ticket home and a few thousand rupees, said Rishi Yadav, assistant commissioner at the Mumbai customs department’s Air Intelligence Unit.
“When you have social compulsions, there are many ways of overcoming restrictions,” said Babu as he sat in his house a day before the wedding. “Irrespective of what the government does, Indians will find a way to get around this because every wedding has to have gold.”
•With assistance from Pratik Parija in New Delhi

Cairo exhibition celebrates the power of caricature

The exhibition features work from numerous artists. (Supplied)
Updated 30 min 13 sec ago

Cairo exhibition celebrates the power of caricature

  • From pioneers to present-day, ‘Caricature’ explores the social, political and humorous insights of Arab cartoonists

CAIRO: There’s a certain pleasure in walking into a gallery space packed with caricature works, especially if, growing up as a child in Cairo, you were in the habit of checking the daily papers to indulge in the humorous illustrations of the day.

The opening of the group exhibition “Caricature” at Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek, Cairo, then, is a timely celebration of the populist art form and a welcome reminder of its power to inspire laughter and provoke thought. It ends on December 28.

The exhibition features work from numerous artists (predominantly from Egypt, but also from the wider Arab world and beyond). From the genre’s pioneers to modern-day up-and-comers, the exhibition “documents and presents a new historical narrative of caricature art in Egypt” according to the curatorial statement, adding that the genre presents “often sarcastic interpretation(s) inspired by daily life.”

This artwork is by Mohamed Hakem. (Supplied)

“This is a moment when we come together to say that caricature art is still thriving,” says Samir Abdelghany, curator of the exhibition and a caricaturist himself, as we begin our tour of the two-floored exhibition.

On display is a varied assortment of works tracing the development of caricature as a form of social and political cartooning. The exhibited works vary from funny comic strips to portrait sketches, and from pencil or ink doodles in black-and-white or color, to patchwork, and wire, silicone, steel or stone sculptures.

Many works carry the signatures of prominent artists including Salah Jahin, Hegazy, George Bahgoury, Ragaey, Mohsen Gaber, Ihab Shaker, Salah al-Leithy, Mohyeldin al-Labad, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Rakha, Ahmed Toughan, Saroukhan, and Mostafa Hussein.

This artwork is by Said Badawy. (Supplied)

“Essentially, we are celebrating the pioneers of caricature art,” says Abdelghany. “We observe their works and wonder if creativity ebbed after them. But then we come across artists like Doaa Al-Adl, Amro Selim, Makhlouf, and Mostafa Salem, among others, and find that it obviously hasn’t,” he adds.

Abdelghany says Egypt has a long history of caricature, even claiming it is a “pharaoinc art,” as evidenced by ancient drawings, papyri and fragments. The country also has a distinct style, he says. “Egyptian artists took up the art of caricature, and together they helped fashion an all-Egyptian caricature style.”

The exhibition comprises works acquired from private collections — including the families of Saroukhan and Toughan — and from antique dealers. Other works were commissioned specially for the exhibition, which also includes work from Abdelghany’s own collection, which he began to amass in the early Nineties when he moved to Cairo from Alexandria to work as a producer on Egyptian state TV.

This artwork is by Samir Abdelghany. (Supplied)

“We must have hosted some 50 cartoonists, and each one of them would illustrate at least two pieces before going on air — one for the program director and the other for myself. Eventually, I had amassed a huge collection, but I didn’t know what I was going to with it at the time,” he says. “Another time, I was working on an article about artist Hassan Hakim and needed a motif. He gave me three! Little did I know that 20 years later I would be exhibiting these in a caricature-themed exhibition, with Hakim as one of its stars.”  

It was Abdelghany’s personal relationship with Hakim that initially inspired him to curate the exhibition, he says. “I’ve always loved Hakim’s work and I worried that he was going to be forgotten if we didn’t showcase his works more often.”

The gallery’s celebration of the rich culture of Egyptian, and Arab, caricature comes at a time when the art form seems to be battling for survival.  Abdelghany says that caricaturists are facing “less freedom, more censorship” in Egypt at the moment.

This artwork is by Islam Zaki. (Supplied)

“There was a time when Sabah Al-Kheir magazine allowed over 30 artists to doodle together in the same workplace,” says Abdelghany of one of the most-important magazines in the history of Egyptian caricature. “Why is this no longer the case? Talented artists still exist.”

The exhibition is also a chance to educate art students and young artists, according to Said Badawy, an established caricaturist and former illustrator for Al Ahram newspaper, among other publications. Badawy’s contribution to the exhibition is a comical illustration of a dog calling for his owner’s attention as her husband engages in an affair with another woman. “It is a funny caricature that attests to the dog’s never-ending loyalty,” says Badawy.

He says that each work in the exhibition is “a lesson in its own right” for visiting aspiring artists, portraying the importance of social and political cartoons, and highlighting the artists’ position as ‘the voice of the streets.’

This artwork is by Kamal El-Sawy. (Supplied)

“The role of a caricature artist is not to collect the mountains of rubbish piled up next to a hospital, for example, but to illustrate the health hazards caused by this waste and shed light on corruption with his satire-themed strokes,” he explains. “The caricatures on display are a candid representation of different moments in Egypt’s modern history, which in turn left their mark on the work of (the) artists.”

Beyond functioning as an alternative, often-critical, documentation of Egypt’s social and political history, caricature can also be an avid celebration of cultural life. This is especially clear in the work of Mohamed Hakem, who contributes two vibrant works to the exhibition. The first is of an Egyptian moulid, and the second of a street fight in an Egyptian harra (alleyway). The latter is a major source of inspiration for Hakem, who has created 41 large illustrations of the “big world” of the harra to date. “No one has captured its essence, except maybe for (filmmaker) Salah Abou Seif.” (He also cites the “attempts” of two other filmmakers, Kamal Al-Sheikh and Youssef Chahine.)

This artwork by Mohamed Hakem. (Supplied)

Caricature is often seen as an ‘inferior’ visual-art form (particularly by fine artists), with its often crude or childish representations considered to demonstrate a lack of “true” ability on the part of its artists. That idea is at the core of Abdelghany’s own contribution to the exhibition — an acrylic painting which shows a couple embracing as they exchange a long glance, thus imagining “caricature in a relationship with fine art,” he explains.

“Caricatures can carry fine-art elements, and vice versa,” says Abdelghany, adding that one of the reasons he was keen to invite artists such as Mohamed Abla, Samir Fouad, and Mostafa Rahma to contribute caricature-inspired paintings to the exhibition was to promote this idea. “(Caricaturists) can create fine art.”

And they do. Abdelghany says he expects the exhibition to run in December 2020 and December 2021 as well. It is, he says, “a victory for caricature art.”