Agra: a city of entrepreneurial excellence
There's no doubt that no one thinks of Agra without also thinking of the Taj Mahal. But Agra has much more to offer than Mughal monuments, say local artistes, businessmen and culture-activists, and that is its entrepreneurial excellence.
"The whole Braj Mandal, roughly the area now under the Taj Trapezium Zone, has a vibrant centre of entrepreneurial excellence that catapulted Agra to the forefront decades ago," says historian Raj Kishore Raje, and author of "Bharat mein Angrez" (Englishmen in India).
No other city in India can boast of producing a range of items for which raw materials are not locally available.
"Agra is famous for iron foundries, glassware, leather shoes, its peculiar sweet called petha, and also handicrafts. But the raw material for all these industries is not locally available. It is the skilled workers, the artisans, craftsmen, the entrepreneurial class in Agra that has made the city rank among India's top industrial towns," Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, told IANS.
Gourd, from which petha is made, comes from Maharashtra and other southern states. It is processed and turned into a sweet by skilled workers in Agra.
The story goes that the Taj Mahal was built by 22,000 workers who consumed petha for instant energy in Agra's hot summer months.
Iron foundries depend on supplies of pig iron and coal, as well as natural gas from outside the state.
"But it is the dexterous hands and "desi" (local) technology that evolved over years, to produce cast iron products including manholes that found markets even in America. Now a whole range of products are cast. During the green revolution, Agra's iron foundries provided solid support manufacturing pumps, agricultural implements and diesel generators," says Srimohan Khandelwal, a leading industrialist.
Marble and coloured precious stones come from Rajasthan and various other places, but the expert in-lay artistes and craftsmen here create intricate artistic pieces.
The glassware and bangles of Firozabad, earlier part of Agra but now a neighbouring district, are famous the world over.
The glass manufacturers use soda ash and silica sand, which come from Gujarat and Rajasthan. "But it's the expertise, the skills of workmen, that really contribute to the growth and advance of this industry," says senior journalist from Firozabad, Raghvendra.
How and why Agra became the chief centre of the leather shoe industry, nobody knows. For the past 80 years, Agra has continued to remain number one in terms of production and exports of leather.
Leather and other raw materials come from Chennai and other centres. The leather shoe industry employs more than 100,000 workers directly and sustains 200,000 more in various ways.
"The local workers, designers, cutters, and others are not just hard-working but have very creative talents and keep coming up with new ideas to stay ahead in the race," according to leading exporter Harvijay.
Talking of the entrepreneurial genius of the local 'banias', retired banker P.N. Agarwal says: "The first loan to the East India Company in 1640 to build a factory at Surat was given by a local bania. Another local seth funded Aurangzeb's brother Murad to raise an army to rebel against the emperor. Agra's industrial base and entrepreneurial class were highly evolved and had far-reaching interests and networks," Agarwal told IANS.
K.C. Jain, president of the Agra Development Foundation, regrets that the traditions and legacy of the city have long been neglected.
"More attention these days is focussed on stones and monuments as tourism brings money. But for society's balanced growth, arts, culture, cuisine and industry are all to be seen as heritage," Jain said.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)