Marvels of molten metal

Tribal craft

Indisputably, the country boasts of an amazing handicraft industry flourishing across its diverse lands. Rich in history, it never ceases to impress one with its amazing artistry and uniqueness. The lost wax technique for metal casting is one such art that has travelled from the skilled tribesmen dwelling in rural areas to the urban artisans, leaving one spellbound with its distinctiveness and magnificence.

The lost wax art is traditionally associated with the tribesmen belonging to the Dhokra Damar tribe in Bastar and Raigarh districts of Chhattisgarh. For long, local artisans have expressed their fascination for this marvelous handicraft, which is often referred to as Bastar art or Dhokra art (dhokra means the oldest). Stated to be over 4,000 years old, it is believed that the Dhokras used the art for ritualistic purposes and made the statue of Danteshwari Mata, the cult figure of the Gond tribe of Bastar and Sarguja districts of Chattisgarh. The knowledge and technique of this art must have spread to the adjoining areas through nomadic tribesmen and craft workers, thus making it popular in other regions like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar too.

Some theories suggest that this ancient folk craft could have been evolved during the Sumerian culture in 2000 BC at the Indus valley.

The intriguing revelation about the lost wax art being one of the genius works of the inhabitants of the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro (city of the dead) came to light when a figurine of a girl was found in 1926 during excavation. Experts say the figure was the first example of this technique practiced in 2500 BC. The statue gained much popularity and was christened as the dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro.

Referred to with various names like bell metal casting, lost wax process (cire-perdue) or hollow casting, it predominantly makes use of a unique method of replacing wax with molten metal, an alloy of brass and bronze, or tin and copper, through a simple, yet laborious method to make metal artefacts. Commonly made objects are birds, animals, mythological figures, motifs and decorative items. However, local artisans have displayed their talent by making practical items of daily use like combs, cups and bowls too.

Studies reveal that similar techniques have been used in the other parts of the world as well, like in Europe, North Africa and Egypt, to make items of religious value. In 1700 BC, it is said that the Shang dynasty in China made use of this art to furnish items for spiritual duties. In West Africa, the art evolved around 900 AD. However, the art acquired the name bell metal casting in medieval Europe in 1200 AD when the local craftsmen furnished bells for their house of worship.

An indepth look into the intricate method of making items with this technique goes on to prove the elevated sense of design and artistry the local artisans are bestowed with.
At first, the desired statue, the basic mould, is made using a combination of sand and soft clay, mixed with goat dung or cow dung or husk (the components may vary). The process of making the figure is called core building. The statue, carefully furnished, is dried for a couple of days before it is considered ready for the next step, perhaps the most arduous one. It makes use of bee wax, commonly obtained from the jungle. The wax is melted and filtered to free it from impurities. This wax is then used to make long threads or strings in desirable thickness. This wax thread is then wound uniformly around the statue in an intricate pattern and fine detailing is done on the clay statue. In a way, the basic mould is covered with wax.

The painstakingly decorated statue is then left to dry, before it is again coated carefully with a paste of fine clay and mud, usually obtained from termite hill, as it’s soft and refined (some tribes add plant leaves to this paste). The wax coating is now sandwiched between the main body and the outer coating.

At this stage, small openings or freeways are left at peculiar points for the wax to melt out, when it is baked in an open kiln after the coating has been dried thoroughly.

Once the wax is subsequently melted out, or lost (this very step gives it the name, the lost wax art), leaving an elaborate cavity, molten metal is poured into it with great care. The metal firmly fills in the space, makes a shell over the basic mould, which was earlier covered with wax. This step is the core beauty of this art, which needs to be carried out with precision and skill.

The wait to see the result ends when the metal solidifies and the craftsman, cautiously but confidently, breaks the outer mud coat to reveal the metal statue with its dull gold finishing.

The wax may be lost in the process, but the pleasure gained is surely immense, not only for the craftsmen, but for all those who buy the beautiful artefacts.

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