This story appears in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The snake charmer. The yarn threader. The broommaker. Traditional jobs in India can be as varied and distinctive as the country’s bright colors and rich flavors. That occupational diversity is on display in “Marginal Trades,” photographer Supranav Dash’s portrait series showcasing people at work, primarily in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
The jobs Dash portrays—making sweets, for example, or cow-dung cakes for fuel—are vanishing, and with them goes a social hierarchy that’s held for centuries. For many people in India, the caste system has long determined one’s occupation. But now that public discrimination based on caste has been banned, Dash sees more young people ignoring caste-based limitations, including restrictions on what livelihoods they can pursue. “They just don’t seem to care,” says Dash, who grew up in Kolkata.
Many of the workers whose trades are waning—especially artisans—are at the mercy of economic as well as cultural forces. “The major threat to crafts and traditional jobs is technology,” says Indian economist Shyam Sundar. Cups once made by hand can be mass-produced from plastic. Individual goldsmiths can’t compete with newly built factories.
“What you hear a lot from artists and crafters is that they know their kids will not continue their work,” says Sundar. “They say, ‘My craft will end with me.’ ”