Crafting livelihoods

Dhokra art

Crafting livelihoods

Jharkhand is bestowed with rich natural resources, vibrant cultural traditions and a distinct tribal identity. It is known for its fine craftsmanship in wood, bamboo, stone, terracotta and brass; traditional folk paintings and unique tribal ornaments. However, lack of any support to these uneducated artisans had pushed many arts and crafts to oblivion.

Had it not been the zealous efforts by the Government organisation, Jharcraft (Jharkhand Silk Textile and Handicraft Development Corporation Ltd.), to undertake the challenging task of reviving the dying arts, the artisans and weavers would have remained in abject poverty. Sadly, their artistic skills would have vanished.

One of the most striking stories of revival is the age-old Dhokra art, considered to be practiced since Paleolithic age. The Malhor tribals of Jharkhand have kept alive the art, but struggling to survive. Scattered in over 10 districts of the tribal state, the artisans were addicted to alcohol and living in penury.

Craft central

The spacious and swanky showroom of ‘Jharcraft’ in the heart of Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi is chock-a-block with interesting pieces of art and craft from across the state. As you marvel at the rich traditional art and appreciate their effort to preserve the rich heritage, there are plenty to dazzle your eye. The assortment of intricately chiselled figures of Hindu deities in brass caught my attention. Learning that these were Dhokra art made in Jharkhand evoke my interest. The pendants in beaded necklace also turned out to be Dhokra creation.

Till now, Dhokra art conjured up images of Chhattisgarh artists, but in reality, it is not limited to one state but spread over Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh — wherever Malhor tribes live. One of the finest known examples is the ‘dancing girl’ found in the excavation of Mohanjadaro’s excavation of the Indus Valley civilisation.

In Jharkhand, generations of Malhor families have specialised in making Dhokra artefacts. However, with time, the buyers’ interest in this ancient art dwindled. The artisans were forced to make simple artefacts like diyas (earthen lamps) and small idols of religious deities to be sold in local markets. These objects were sold by weight, the artisans getting labour charges as profit with no additional value to their art. Uneducated and poor, they were ignorant of new designs, techniques and marketing linkages. Most artisans were living a hand-to-mouth existence.

It was in 2009 that Jharcraft, in association with a few NGOs, initiated the revival of Dhokra art. This was done to preserve a rich heritage and to create livelihood opportunities. Actually, the onus lay in the hands of an Indian Forest Service officer, Dhirendra Kumar, who found himself at the helm of a sick department of industries (additional charge of sericulture, handlooms, handicrafts and khadi) when appointed as its special secretary in 2006. He had the option of either maintaining the status quo or take the gargantuan challenge of turning the tables. When he chose the unthinkable, he faced stiff resistance from his own men in the department and the government. 

A man of ideas, determination and an implementer, he presents a picture of poise and grace as I meet him in the aesthetically decorated office of Jharcraft. The handloom furnishings and artistic handicrafts spell elegance, a far cry from the first day he took the reins when the room had just one rickety fan and a table and chair. The transformation is symbolic of the thousands of artisans and weavers whose lives were transformed socially and economically. From incurring loss to having a turnover of 80 crores, it was his relentless efforts that Jharcraft was established to support sericulture farmers, handloom and handicraft artisans living in remote areas of the state. All of these were uphill tasks, more so the revival of Dhokra art that was almost at the brink of extinction in the state.

“We invited 300 Dhokra artists from across the state at one place, the Urban Haat in the hilly town of Hazaribagh. We could understand the whole value chain of Dhokra and the pathetic conditions of the artisans,” said Dhirendra Kumar, managing director, Jharcraft. This was in lieu of making the mascot chhaua (young deer) for the 34th national games to be held in Ranchi in February 2011.

A strenuous task

The Dhokra process is long and entails five to seven days for making one artefact. It requires making of moulds, design development, mud layering, casting, grinding, buffing, polishing and packaging. All these steps could be done by different people at different places.

But for the revival of Dhokra art, Urban Haat in Hazaribagh is the only place in the country where the entire value chain of Dhokra was established. Even after the National games were over, the artists were exposed to new designs and concepts, techniques and innovations, so they would be professionally acquainted to eke out a decent livelihood from an art they inherited from their forefathers. Today, as many as hundred artisans have permanently settled there. They have assured income as they supply to the Jharcraft emporiums in Ranchi and other prominent cities of India where one can buy Dhokra artefacts.

“We encourage artisans to do traditional designs as well as contemporary utility items,” said Rishav Sahay, director, Craftedge, working closely with Jharcraft in Hazaribagh. They had been making God and animal figurines, lamps, ghunghru, measuring cups and jewellery out of old brass by the lost wax process called Dhokra. There are two types of Dhokra based on the casting process; the solid one where figures made entirely of brass, and the hollow one.

To sustain the handicraft, meet the market demand and enhance the value of products, Jharcraft lays a lot of emphasis on design development. Whether it is the government or corporate sector requiring mementos made of Dhokra art, traditional artefact coveted by art lovers, aesthetic utility furnishing items or trendy accessories for young generation; the artisans cater to all.

According to Rishav, Dhokra art is developing as an industry in Jharkhand. Now, artisans abstain from liquor, lead a settled life and enthusiastically send their children to school.
A case in point is the artisan couple Mohan Malhor and Kunti Devi, parents of six children, none going to any school. Life was a day-to-day struggle till they came to Urban Haat. For them, it was like emerging from darkness to light. Today, proud recipients of the certificate of appreciation for designing Dhokra artefacts, the couple has saved more than Rs 4 lakh and send three of their children to school.

With a steady monthly income, aspirations have risen for Gaur and Purnima Karmakar too, who are sending both their children to an English medium school. Several such success stories of Dhokra artisans have been made possible by the untiring efforts of Jharcraft to revive a dying art and bring about socio-economic transformation in its wake.

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