Shaping 'dhokra'

Ancient & modern

Shaping 'dhokra'

Reminiscent of the dancing girl of Mohenjodaro, ‘dhokra’ artworks are slowly gaining popularity. Brinda Suri writes about the artisans’ efforts to keep the artform alive.

The dancing girl of Mohenjodaro is a fine reminder of India’s glorious heritage. She is an enigmatic emblem of the Indus Valley civilisation. A familiar face in history books, her intrepid expression has intrigued many a historian, who have described the 4,000-year-plus bronze statuette as outstanding craftsmanship.

What’s more, she was cast into shape using the lost wax process, a skill that has been passed down generations, and is still popular in parts of India. It’s a well-known craft in eastern and central India and today it’s called dhokra, named such after the eponymous tribe, found in parts of Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Orrisa, which were keepers of this metal craft.

Handicraft fairs across the country have played a big role in promoting dhokra. Encouraged by buyers’ response, craftsmen have been producing an assortment of artefacts and these include both bric-a-brac with contemporary themes as well as captivating tribal motifs.

Though these items — usually gods-goddesses, birds, animals and village life portrayals — display primitive simplicity, they are high in aesthetic sensibility, have intricate workmanship and powerful forms. The final product, however small in size, is a result of a tedious casting process done by skilled hands, using the same lost wax art, which created the Mohenjodaro dancing girl. And like her, contemporary dhokra too is enamouring the world.

‘Ghadwa’ in Bastar

The Bastar region in southern Chhattisgarh is a haven for those who appreciate handicraft. Almost each house in villages here is involved in some trade, and these include pig-iron casting, terracotta and bamboo craft. The art of dhokra here is known as ghadwa kaam, and it’s the Ghadwa community that pursues it.

One of the places to see ghadwa artists at work is Kondagaon, off-NH 43, the highway that connects north and south Chhattisgarh and is considered the state’s lifeline. While visiting the region during the famous Bastar Dussehra festival, I had the opportunity to stop at Kondagaon and observe the ghadwa procedure from start to finish at homes of master craftspersons. I realised, in addition to skill, ghadwa craft required immense perseverance, as its processes are very labour-intensive. 

Arduous artform

The conventional hollow-casting process is followed in this region. The painstaking method involves almost 15 stages, and begins with developing a rough mould, of the image to be cast, initially with mud and rice husk, that’s further coated with river clay and sandpapered on drying. This is then covered with paraffin wax, after which the final design in all its details is created with wax threads.

This is once again layered with a mix of river clay, termite hill mud and coal powder. It’s at this stage that an opening is left at the bottom which is meant for draining of the wax upon baking the mould and subsequently pouring the molten metal, which is a mix of brass and bronze.

The metal solidifies between two clay cores and takes the shape of the image created with wax. After the mould cools, the clay is removed and a metal image emerges, which is filed and polished to perfection. A hand-finished ghadwa item has a matte finish. However, these days, bowing to customer demands, the metal product is buffed to a shiny finish.

It’s is Kondagaon’s national award winning artist Jaidev Baghel, who has played a significant role in popularising the craft and getting it out of anonymity. He, however, gives the credit to freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu, who had visited his father’s workshop in 1951 after hearing about his expertise in the craft.

“She came to our home wanting to see the ancient art. She was impressed with what she witnessed and awarded my father a certificate,” says Baghel, as he goes down memory lane. The visit was to leave a lasting impression on young Baghel’s mind and he took up the craft with passion, making a name for himself worldwide. “It’s good to experiment, but I would advocate people to buy typical tribal products, as too
much makeover destroys the essence of a craft.”  

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