A primordial art from West Bengal

A primordial art from West Bengal

Long ago, in 2500 BC, in the city of Mohenjodaro, a craftsman sculpted a four-inch bronze statuette of a dancing girl. Centuries later, while excavating the ruins of the town that dated back to the Indus Valley civilisation, the statuette was discovered by archaeologists.
It was hailed as one of the most important discoveries because the statue of the dancing girl testifies that metallurgy was in a well-advanced stage, and that the casters knew the art of blending metal, casting and other sophisticated methods such as lost-wax technique. It was also an evidence of the superb craftsmanship practised during that time. Besides the technical aspect, the statuette also illustrated the life of people in that era.

It was a well-developed society, in which dance and other performing arts were used for entertainment. The elaborately coiled hair, ornaments and the confident posture of the woman illustrate some aspects of the social life at Mohenjodaro.

The dancing girl symbolises the artistic aspect of a civilisation that no longer exists. Fortunately though, the technique of metal casting still exists.

Dokra or Dhokra art, uses the same prehistoric method of sculpting metal with wax casting. Named after the tribal community that excels in the technique, it is a fascinating process that uses simple tools and locally available raw material. Dhokra tribes, who are metal workers by tradition, are spread over West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The beautiful artefacts turned out by the Bastar tribals adorn many homes in India and abroad.
Right from the ancient time, tribals have been expert metalsmiths. Much of their work consists of tribal imagery with generous dollops of mythology and imagination woven into the product.

At the beginning, the Dhokra tribals restricted the sculptures to images of tribal gods, goddesses, animals and birds. These adorned the altars at homes and temples, often travelling from place to place with pilgrims. With the passing of time, as the demand and popularity of the items grew, the tribal artisans started crafting different kinds of products. Like most skills, the art of wax casting is also handed down from one generation to the other, which ensures that the traditional aspects of design elements are not lost.

The process of lost wax casting involves several stages. It begins with the creation of a mould in the shape of the final product. The mould is made by mixing two or three kinds of clays. For this, the fine soil from the river beds is blended with the clay from ant hills and sand. To this is added rice husk and cow dung. The resulting clay core, known as kotan, is layered with a combination of beeswax, resin of sal tree collected from the forests and mustard oil. The wax is drawn into long threads and wound around the kotan. Intricate details of the design are also incorporated.

Once the wax mould is ready, it is coated with a thin layer of fine clay, and when the first
layer has dried and hardened, more layers of clay are added to the mould. A coating of rice husk, bean leaf paste sand and clay is applied to the entire surface as the final layer. This helps in increasing the thickness of the mould. A few channels are created in the mould so as to allow the molten wax to flow out.

The furnace is fired and the mould inserted into it. Due to the heat, the wax melts and flows out through the channels. The wax is then replaced with molten metal, which mostly comes from bronze and brass scrap.

The molten metal poured into the mould takes the same shape as the wax. Once the metal-filled mould has cooled, the clay is chipped off and the semi-finished creation is removed. The metal figurine that emerges from the mould is likely to have rough edges and a few flaws. The honing and finishing is done using metal files. Holes that might have been left by air bubbles are filed too. Once that is done, the final touch is given by buffing the statue to give it a shine.

Although the process may seem simple, it requires expertise to implement. Since a clay mould can't be used more than once, fresh moulds have to be created for each piece. The breaking of the mould also requires patience and precision since the tiniest of carelessness or mistake while breaking the mould can destroy the piece. Most artisans depend on the sun for various stages of drying, so the weather plays an important role in the entire process.

The skilled Dhokra artisans can craft anything from tiny beads to a large statue. While a small and simple piece can be created in four to five days, intricate products take a much longer time to complete. For instance, the wall hangings depicting rural life, which consist of a dozen or more figures,can take a long time to make, since each element has to be finished separately before the wax model can be assembled.

Most people are unaware that the beautiful tribal statuette that finds a proud place on their shelf or acts as the starting point of many conversations has gone through an elaborate and laborious process before reaching the shelf.

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