Marble is a luxury product and stone work on marble is even more of a luxury. The art is called Parchinkari or Pachchikari in the local language. It is a very niche art, found only in Agra and Udaipur at times.
Evolution of the Art
This art originally is from Florence, Italy. It is still practiced in Italy and is called Pietra dura meaning hard stones. You can see some examples in Pitti palace and the best pieces can be seen in a small museum tucked away in a corner of Florence, called Museo Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
It was introduced in India by the Mughal rulers who were great patrons of art and had a huge empire spanning the middle east and the Indian subcontinent at one point or another. Being such powerful rules, the Europeans wanted to make trade arrangements. Pieces of Pietra dura were brought as gifts.
The 5th ruler Shah Jahan was very architecturally bent and embraced this artform whole heartedly. It was during his reign that this art flourished.
Shah Jahan son Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan in 1658. He was more of a military leader and focused only on expanding the Mughal empire further towards the south of India. After him, his successors were weak rulers and in 1857 the last king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and his entire lineage were completely wiped out by the British that had invaded India. So, from 1658, the date of Shah Jahan’s house arrest by his son Aurangzeb, till the 1940’s when the first marble inlay retail shop opened in Agra, where did this art go? A gap of 300 years!
Possible theory is that the art was practiced only by a few families as renovations of the Taj Mahal were needed. Some other small raja’s palaces and religious buildings needed this work so a small number of artisans managed to keep this art alive.
One concrete example of this from 1899 -1905. Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of India under Britain’s queen Victoria, was the first after centuries to undertake the renovation of the Taj. Most likely it is he who revived this art along with the Rajas and the religious groups.
The first retail shop in Agra was called Indian marble in a place called Pratappura. It opened its doors during the British occupation around the 1940’s. Then it became the centre of all things Parchinkari. All the travel agents and retail shops were here. The next few shops that came into existence are as follows:
Chedilal and sons in Gokulpura
Bihari lal and sons
Subhash emporium in 1962
Marble art palace
First centre of Parchinkari was gokulpura, Agra. The Taj was accessible from Agra fort and Bijli ghar not from the current location of East gate from Shilpgram. Taj Nagri did not exist so the art was not this side.
Interestingly, the first shop near The Taj on Fatehabad road was Akbar International.
Travel revived in India due to the British empire. Then after independence it flourished due to higher tourist numbers
So, this art has been in India from the mid 1500’s. That is approx. 5 centuries!
The business model in earlier years of mid 1900’s till as late as 1980’s was mostly that tourists discovered India and would go to a few souvenir shops to purchase a bit of Taj. Travel agents were not part of the picture. And artists were in small numbers that sold their articles directly to the shop owners. What the artists made was what was sold. No input of the customer. Customer care didn’t exist.This business model gave freedom to the artists to express and make as complex or as simple designs as they wanted. The artform was still a bit crude by today’s standards however. This also goes to show something – customers really are the best engine for innovation.
Business model today: There are 4 players involved in today’s business model. There is a very intricate relationship between the artist, the retailer, the travel agent and the customer.The tables have been turned and the customer preference now , both in terms of design and price point, dictates what the retailer stocks which in turn dictates what the artist makes.This reversal has given rise to some new works of art. In a quest to produce pieces that are one of a kind, new designs have been introduced.
For e.g. The Mughals did not depict any humans or animals in their art and early Parchinkari designs were very floral. But with changing customer tastes, such taboos have been overturned and all sorts of patterns are now a part of the artists skillset.
There is another business model that has risen in the last decade with the rise of the internet and globalisation. The alternate business model of wholesale. Selling to big companies like Walmart or Ikea, River island etc.In this model again, the customer dictates what they want. As a result, the art has become slightly more global but, in the process, has lost quality and to make it affordable to the masses, lost its complexity.
Market Analysis: Demand Side
Total tourism market in India
According to Indian tourism statistics report 2018, India has seen a steady increase in the tourist numbers. In 2000 , we had 2.65 million foreign visitors and ranked 50th in the world. By 2017 we were hosting 16.81 million visitors, a 6 fold increase in 17 years, and ranking 26th in the world. This figure includes Non- Resident Indians (NRI’s) as well because they form part of the tourist circuit too.
In 2017, the country with the second most tourist arrivals (standing at 1.3 million) was the US.
Agra tourism market
So how does Agra compare to the Indian tourism increase? Please not that all the data is from the Uttar Pradesh tourism stats for 2017.
Foreigners: Out of the 16 million international tourists, we had 0.86 million visiting Agra, specifically the Taj Mahal. So that’s 5% of the inbound tourist that lands in Agra. If we remove the NRI’s, because they mostly visit their families, then that percentage becomes 8.6%.
Domestic: Out of the 1.3 billion Indians, 5.6 million visited the Taj Mahal in 2017.
So, Agra saw a total of 6.4 million visitors visit Taj. We are taking Taj as the barometer because everyone comes to Agra to see the Taj so it’s a reliable number. The number is collected by counting the number of tickets sold to foreign and Indian nationals. Other monuments are incidental. Evenly divided over 313 days (Fridays, Taj is closed for prayer), about 20,000 people visit the monument each day. This number also includes the local guides and the local people but they are quite minute so we will ignore them.
Customer buying behaviour towards luxury, ethnic goods
Millennials want to be associated with brands that actually help the society and the planet and are not focused on their agendas of just profit generation at the cost of society and planet. Some of the brands that are doing this and winning big are Patagonia, Lush, Tesla.
Example of a brand failing to listen to their customer is Ivanka Trump’s clothing line that shut shop in 2018 when Nordstrom decided they didn’t want to stock items from a company whose vision and the work that they actually do are at odds with one another. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/07/24/ivanka-trump-shuts-down-her-namesake-clothing-brand/
Indians domestic tourist: With cheaper flights, more disposable income and very cheap tours, the domestic Indian tourist for the first time in history can travel their own vast country which is about 1/3rd the size of the US. They have just now started exploring the country and as such are into the 1950’s phase of the world when after world war 2, consumerism was spreading and the mantra that the more you have the better it is. This is the reason that retail shops in Agra have exploded in the last 10 years.
So, who are the buyers amongst these 6.4 million? What does our segmentation look like?
Baby boomers in their 50’s with high disposable incomes and own homes. They are also mostly foreigners.
Aspirational millennials with limited space but an eye for art and they care about supporting local industries.
Market Analysis: Supply Side
How many artists were involved in the art of Parchinkari during the Mughal times is difficult to know but there is data for the last 20 years. There are no official statistics available for this so the data has been collected from people working in the industry for 40 years. They have been acknowledged in the references below.
We have about 7 different regions in Agra that are engaged in the Parchinkari work. Over the years the regions have shifted and now the biggest population of artists (50%) live near the Taj Mahal area called Taj Ganj, which is where both branches of Akbar International are located as well.
As the years have passed, a few notable changes have happened to this industry:
The number of artisans themselves have gone down. 2 decades ago in 2001 there were approximately 3000 artists.
In 2020, there are only about 1000, out of which about 400 work more or less exclusively for us. Our longest association has been with 5 artist families for 40 years, basically since the day we began. Therefore, the number has declined by roughly 66%. There are a few reasons for this happening:
The younger generation is less interested in carrying on the trade. With the explosion of internet usage in India, we are global citizens following the news and trends of the world. The younger generation realizes that education and working in an MNC are a way to go and to move out of the poverty that their ancestors have been in.
The 2001 attack on the twin towers, which was a globally painful event was a turning point for us as well. It shook the entire world and the world tourism dropped. Agra felt the heat too and from then on, the number have steadily declined.
Finally, the 2007 recession also contributed to lower tourist numbers. Lower tourist numbers meant lower demand and thus, lower supply.
However, despite the declining numbers, the overall production, quantity wise and revenue generation, is on the rise. This is very counterintuitive but there are again some solid reasons for this:
1. Mechanisation – Some portion of the process is now mechanised. The introduction of new machines in a few critical pathways has greatly improved the productivity of an artist.
Marble slab cutting machines
Iron blade -3-4 days to cut one block
Diamond blade– less than 1 day
Cavity making machine
4 hours for a small table
Iron to steel tip in chisels
Blacksmith was needed to make it and used to get used up very quickly
Steel tip is easily available and long lasting. Just need to be soldered on
Substitute stones/Plastic pieces
• Different shade in the same lot • Expensive • Difficult to work as they chip easily
• Same shade in all production • Cheap • Plastic polymers are now being used instead of the actual stones. These are easy to shape and are thinner so again the production numbers have gone up
2. Increase in number of retailers – A number of new retail outlets have opened that have spurred the increase in production but simultaneously the quality and authenticity has gone down.
We now have about 170 different individual shops in Agra. Out of these there are only 6 that have a turnover of above 10 Crore (Cr.) or 1.5 Million USD annually. A Crore is INR 10,000,000.
The marble inlay industry therefore generated a total of approx. 200 Cr (30 million USD) the last few years. The breakdown is as follows taking the 6 biggest retailers in Agra for marble.
Six biggest retailers:
Akbar International + Kalakriti + Marble Art Palace + Agra marble + UP handicrafts + Cottage Industries Exposition (CIE) = INR 130 Cr
170 shops around Taj x INR 56,00000 per annum revenue generation on Avg = 95 CR
3. Beyond Borders – This industry is however spreading outside Agra and the national border. We have artists going out to work on international and national projects such as inlay work in mosques, Sikh temples, homes and commercial buildings.
130 + 95 Cr = Approx. 200 Cr industry or a 30 million USD industry
The figures are very hard to estimate since there are no official records.
True Parchinkari happens only in Agra. Labourers go around the nation or the world to do work. E.g. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center in Abu Dhabi
Agra is usually the last destination during anybody’s trip to India so as far as competition is concerned, it comes more from other handicrafts. India has a very rich handicrafts culture with a different item being made by the locals in every major district. Entire villages are sometimes enrolled in making a particular item.
E.g. Jaipur has jewellery, cloth. Some places in Rajasthan have mirror work
Then we have carpet, pashmina shawls, papier mache, marquetry, brass, glass, pottery, leather and the list goes on.
Number of artists are decreasing.
Plastics being used instead of real semi-precious stones.
Cost of the actual semi-precious stones is increasing because the demand has gone down. It’s a volumes business. The stones are purchased by the ton so the larger the volume, the cheaper the price per pound.
Conflict in nations is making procurement of the semi-precious stones difficult. E.g. procuring Lapis from Afghanistan is difficult so now we get it from Chile, which is about 10,000 miles further west. It adds to the transportation costs increasing the value to Lapis.
Artists sector is disorganised unlike the shoe industry which is very organised. Being a luxury product, the sector is very sensitive to economic downturns. As a result, work can be sporadic and therefore the sector is not organised with no unions. Artists easily leave the work and look for other avenues to make quick money.
We at Akbar International, however, as mentioned before have been working with a lot of families for more than a decade at least. We provide our own marble and promote this art by paying them fair wages, ensuring year-round work and working welcoming the second generation of artists as well. That is why we have almost half the artisans of Agra working with us.
One big challenge is the cultural mindset. Women are not allowed to work on this art. Long standing dominance of males in the industry, lowering numbers of artists etc, play a role is excluding women from working on the art and in the retail establishments. Just like there is a disproportionate number of women working as air stewardesses, the same mindset pollutes this industry too making this industry exclusively male.
Currently coronavirus has already led to cancellations of tours. Global events like this always affects tourism. When markets crash as a global recession looms large, tourism will decrease, and we will be hit the hardest because marble is luxury and can be given up easily.
This art is very regional. It’s not like carpet that is a necessity and is used all over. The reason for the confinement is the Taj Mahal itself. The monument helps understand the patience, love, labour that goes into making something this beautiful. It is difficult to make anybody understand this unless they don’t see the Taj and the process of making the art with their own eyes.
What does the future hold for this industry?
As we progress and get connected more globally, this art might be more readily available online so it might become more ubiquitous. Only caveat, will it be embraced without the history of the Taj backing it up? Only time will tell.
Government incentives are high needed to preserve not only this but also other arts as well. As recent as 2017, the ODOP scheme was floated. The official UP government website states “ OD/OP OR One District One Product Programme is aimed at creating product-specific traditional industrial hubs across 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh that will promote traditional industries that are synonymous with the respective districts of the state.”
Last year 37 million USD were pledged which is a good step to protect all artforms and consequently the diversity of this country.
There are also the chances that Parchinkari may die out and simply become museum pieces. The causes can be numerous such as economic downturn, artists wanting to explore more knowledge-based careers, price competition squeezing margins and destroying the quality of the art, government programs that do not fulfil what they promise.
This is a niche art with a very limited footprint but the rise of a global connected culture can make it more accessible and known to the world.
Its future can go many ways. It can lose its ability to be a true art and become very commoditized like normal furniture; it can die out making it very valuable; or it can thrive as in the yester years.
Whatever path it takes, it is undeniably beautiful, unbelievable and a shining example of human creativity.
Mr. Mukesh Kumar – stock manager at Akbar International for 39 years. Mr. Kalua – Artist working at Akbar International for 38 years. Second generation working with us too. Mr. Rajeev Saxena –CEO, Sanskriti tours and travels. Associated with Akbar International since 1995. 25 years Mr. Sameer Khan – Senior sales executive at Akbar International. With us since 1998. Mr. Pervez – Artist at Akbar International since 1998 Mr. Naushad – Artist at Akbar International since 2012
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