Under the clouds of smoke and the light emanating from the earthen lamps, amid the clay fragments and wax coils is a sculptor hovering over his lamp, building a religious image using a unique metal casting technique known as Dhokra.
The dancing girl from Mohenjo-daro is not just the most famous piece of art from the Harappan Civilisation, but also one of the finest examples of the metal art from that period. Moreover, this world-famous figurine is also the oldest example of metal casting tradition known as Dhokra, which has withstood time. Surviving centuries of unprecedented change in its purest form.
‘Dhokra casting uses the lost-wax process, also called cire perdue, method of metal casting in which a molten metal is poured into a mold that has been created by means of a wax model. Once the mould is made, the wax model is melted and drained away.’
The Makers and Their Craft
‘The ancient craft of Dhokra (cire perdue, or lost wax) metal casting was once widespread throughout India, but is now restricted to a small number of groups of traditional artisans in widely dispersed locations. One significant nucleus of me craft exists among related groups of families in Bikna Village (Bankura) and nearby Dariapur, in West Bengal, India.’
Dhokra derives its name from ‘Dhokra Damar’, the metal-smith tribes of Bengal. The tribes, who are, incidently still nomads with few settlements, which now extend from West Bengal to Jharkhand and Orissa to Chattisgarh.
Traditionally, Dhokra artists created pieces for themselves and often battered for food. Prabhas Sen, author of the book Crafts of West Bengal (1994), writes that the Dhokra makers travelled village to village selling small Dhokra idols of Lakshmi and her mount owl, Radha Krishna, in a primitive folk style in exchange for food grain. They consider the idols auspicious and believe that it brings happiness and prosperity. Apart from this they also produced utilitarian objects such as measuring bowls for rice, pots for cooking, containers, toys, and lamps for ritual purposes. These older pieces have often developed surface patinas, giving the pieces a rough, dark finish.
The Dhokra artists today, respond to the contemporary needs of a wide client base mostly found in Indian collectors and tourists. This has led to significant changes in the subject matter and appearance. There are, deliberately elongated human and animal figures, napkin holders, tea light and candle stand, ashtrays, jewelry boxes, cutlery and even doorbells, these days.
The Craft Religion
Since, Dhokra is an entirely handcrafted artform, the craftsmen use their intensive imagination and creativity to make each item. Right before the artists sit to make the figure, they pray for guidance from Tvastram (son of Lord Vishwakarma), said to be an expert in metal alloys. The process commences with the sculptor making a core model of clay from fine riverbed soil mixed with coal, dust, and rice husks. This mixture brilliantly takes on the textures and shapes of the later application of wax, resulting in a perfect inner wall of the mold. After drying, they decorate it with strings of wax to create fine detailing and patterns. The Dhokra artisans use a mixture of bee’s wax, resin from the tree ‘Damara Orientallis’ and nut oil to make the dough soft and malleable.
Next in the process is the application of small amounts of fine clay paste over the wax replica which dries in the shade. After which they apply a thicker outer layer of a red soil and rice husk mixture, which have holes on the top for adding the molten metals. They then sundry the piece and then fire them in the ‘Bhatti’, where the wax melts and exits the mould. The final stage is pouring molten brass through the same holes. This technique revolves around replacement of wax loss crevices with molten metal by the traditional hollow casting method. After cooling, they remove the cast and move on to give finishing touches of cleaning and polishing. It’s because of this intricate process, fine finishing, and uniformity that the Dhokra retains its magic of enticing, thus leaving the viewer, enchanted with its timeless elegance.
It’s all about the Survival now!
Although there is a small but increasing demand for dhokra work from urban Indian families, as well as in the tourist trade, the craft is on the verge of extinction. Most of the remaining dhokra communities are extremely poor, and their economic condition has caused many families to leave the craft to find wage employment in local manufacturing centers or in metropolitan centers such as Kolkata (Calcutta). According to Sen (1994): “Perhaps the poorest craft group of West Bengal, the Dhokras are the most interesting and creative. In recent years the pressure of embracing industrialization and changing social values along with the loss of their natural rural market has forced them to diversify their products. And now seeking, with the help of the government and some voluntary agencies, a market among urban sophisticates, as creators of decorative ware. These methods have met with only limited success.”