The Curious Case of Laxmi's Buttons

Features Issue 181 Dec, 2016

The act of buttoning up to get ready, and unbuttoning as the sun goes down, is a common phenomenon, but we hardly notice the little piece of art that defines fashion.

I was returning home on a tempo being driven by a young lady, probably in her early twenties. It was enthralling to see her trying to overtake a guy riding a 150 cc motorcycle. Although I am sure the woman bouncing up and down in the front seat thought of it differently. The tempo finally came to a halt, and the woman wiped the sweat from her forehead using her saree. At that moment I wondered how it would feel to ride on a tempo driven by Laxmi Sharma, Nepal’s first woman tempo driver. She is a pioneer in bone and wood craft, but started her career as a tempo driver at a time when the roads were ruled by men.

The world is full of people who lose buttons, and people who collect buttons. Laxmi Sharma is one of those individuals who designs and makes buttons. She started as a flower girl in the residence of King Tribhuvan’s sister at the age of six. She worked there till she was eleven, and got married at the tender age of thirteen. But, the marriage didn’t last long; she got separated with her husband at the age of twenty-two. She had to find ways to make a living, and it wasn’t going to be easy. She worked as a housemaid for many foreigners, which would later influence her work in the craft industry. Late in the night when she was done with her duties, she used to make small artifacts that she later sold to her employers.

She became Nepal’s first tempo driver when she started in 1979, and it was quite challenging for her to ride the Bajaj tempo in the streets. She was often harassed by the public, many of whom didn’t even have the courtesy to pay her. She poured all the frustrations into her art work. The crafts she made were somber, depicting the hardship and difficulties she faced. It was as a tempo driver that she discovered her true calling. Call it coincidence or destiny, the engine of her tempo used to repeatedly start heating up during the late afternoons and she had to stop, usually at a dumping site, the area where the Om Hospital currently stands. It was the place where she stopped to cool of the engines of her tempo. The sight she saw was quite reminiscent of the “Valley of Ashes” described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. Amidst smokes and ashes, a cart full of the remains of dead cattle, mostly buffaloes, used to arrive from the slaughter houses to the dumping site. The carcasses were greeted by street dogs and vultures. Little did she know that those remains—the bones and the horns—would one day become beautiful pieces of art that would be worn by people from Kathmandu to New York.

Making buttons out of bones is not a new phenomenon. Buttoning Down the Past: A Look at Buttons as Indicators of Chronology and Material Culture by Sarah Elizabeth Marcel talks about how buttons were often made in the home during the 17th and 18th centuries. Buttons are generally made of different animals, such as cow or pig bone, but Laxmi thought of using bones of domestic buffalos and the horns of goats. The process of making buttons isn’t easy. The raw material is covered with water, or steamed, to make it softer. It is then elongated into sheets, and a spherical saw is used to cut out and remove the button blanks. These are polished, and holes are drilled into the body to allow sewing onto clothing. The buttons made out of bones are more durable than the buttons made up of wood, glass, or cotton.

Her work, however, does not consist of only making buttons. She entered the craft industry with woodcraft. After two years of feasibility study, she registered her company, Laxmi Wood Craft Udhyog, about 33 years ago. She began with woodcarving, and the first woodcraft the company produced included bowls and chopsticks. She credits a lot of her work to the time she spent in the library, where she studied a lot about European art and craft and the equipments used. For the woodcraft, different raw materials are used, such as Dalbergia sissoo, yellow wood, and bamboo.

Laxmi Wood Craft produces different buttons from several raw materials, such as buttons made from dried twigs and branches, and buttons made of peach, stone, bamboo, coconut shell, and glass beads. There are about 8,000 designs of buttons, with the company producing 10 to 15 new designs every day. Different crafts made from bone include small statues and sculptures. The hand-woven clothes made from cotton yarn, raw silk yarn, and pashmina complete the product line. Not many buttons pass the test of time. The buttons made of wood, paper, and branches disappear in time, but the buttons made of bones live to tell the tale.

Laxmi says there are more opportunities than challenges in the craft industry today. When she started, she faced different challenges since people couldn’t accept the idea of women entrepreneurs. She had difficulty in getting loans. She recalls a time when she exhibited her work at an international exhibition in Germany. She was amazed seeing international artists presenting different crafts made out of antlers. Before attending the exhibition, she had thought that her idea of crafting beautiful objects out of bones was a new phenomenon. 

She feels that although the workers are very highly skilled, they need a design and guidance to carry out their work, so she herself prepares the master-piece. The number of employees was very high in the past but has gone down in the recent times. The products are exported to several countries in Europe, United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. She laments at the fact that exports has gone down in recent times, with the demand not meeting the supply.

Laxmi loves collecting things. She showed me around her library. It was full of awards in gold and silver frames. She has a bookshelf full of old religious texts written in Sanskrit. She had different tools framed on the pillars in her living room. The act of buttoning up to get ready, and unbuttoning as the sun goes down, is a common phenomenon, but we hardly notice the little piece of art that defines fashion. Laxmi, once a tempo driver, had surely overtaken a lot of people who were “a button short” and doubted
her capabilities.