Save Nagamangala’s metal craft

For centuries, Nagamangala has been famous for its metal craft, especially in bronze and copper. The works of Nagamangala artisans are known for their intricate detailing and elegant proportions.
Last Updated : 05 July 2024, 21:55 IST

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Temples, associated with elaborate rituals, have given birth to various crafts. Many of these — wood carving in processional chariots, stone carving in temple structures, and metalwork used to make idols and their embellishments — have evolved over time. Their continuity depends on patronage from these places of worship.

For centuries, Nagamangala has been famous for its metal craft, especially in bronze and copper. The works of Nagamangala artisans are known for their intricate detailing and elegant proportions. The presence in Nagamangala of a Vishwakarma community temple dating back to the 9th century indicates a long association of the artisan community with the place and the craft.

Research by Dr Sharada Srinivasan, professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, draws attention to the communities practising this craft. Among the Vishwakarmas, two subcastes, Kulachar and Matachar, were associated with metal craft in Nagamangala. They specialised based on the type of metal they worked on. Lately, these distinctions have disappeared, and the number of artisans has also dwindled significantly.  

Training apprentices

Vijaykumar Achari of KSK Handicrafts inherited the craft from his father Krishna Achari. He is now training apprentices from different parts of Karnataka. The metal craft takes many forms, which include making solid idols, metal sheet embossing and engraving, and repousse work.

Metal sheet embossing is the technique where the craftsman works on the front surface of the metal to achieve the desired shape and pattern. With the repousse technique, the craftsman works on the rear of the metal to create the design by low relief. These techniques to make embellishments find a place in the prabhavalis (backdrop of idols), kavachas (armours) of the deities, utsava murtis (idols used in festival processions), smaller chariots, palanquins, temple door frames, pillars, beams and many other parts of the temple.

Design process

The embossing or repousse work of an idol starts with a metal sheet, usually brass or silver. At times, even gold and copper are used. Bhaskar Achari, who owns a workshop on Ratha Beedi across the Soumya Keshava temple, elaborates on the process. “The first stage involves achieving the appropriate shape and size and the second stage is to create the intricate patterns.” Vijaykumar adds that “making a proportionate drawing is an important starting point for a good artefact”. The size of the sheet is based on the total circumferential dimensions of the desired object or result. The shape of the artefact is achieved by beating the sheet to conform to the template made for the purpose.

“Templates become important when the embellishments are three-dimensional, like during the making of the kavachas for deities. Once the size and form are achieved using the metal sheet, the task of making the intricate patterns is taken up,” says Bhaskar Achari.

Intricate patterns are made on the form generated using a chisel and hammer. For this, the sheet needs to be placed on a firm background. Vijaykumar observes that the “repousse technique is challenging since the pattern needs to be imagined and worked on from the back”. Wax or plant-based resins are used to fill the voids and give rigidity. This makes it convenient to work on the patterns by chiselling. Elaborate detailing creates a rich finish to the piece. After completing the design, the wax or resin is melted to get the completed artefact. It is then polished to achieve the final finish. The process is time-consuming (can take from weeks to months depending on the size of the artefact and requires the skill of the artisan to achieve the perfect proportions and intricate details. Some of these embellishments, such as the kavachas for deities, are created in parts, which are assembled on the deity as one whole.

Current challenges

Today this craft faces many challenges, which has led to the number of artisans practising it drastically reducing. The artisans charge Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per kg of metal for the time-consuming work. The cost also depends on the intricacy of the patterns and the complexity of the work.

Bhaskar Achari says customers now want the artefacts done quickly. The artisans find it difficult to meet short deadlines and hence lose customers. The craft is also losing support from local temples, which are hiring artisans from other states (mostly Tamil Nadu).

The craft is slowly losing its presence in Nagamangala, where it flourished for centuries. There are now just four or five families practising the craft, says an artisan.

The nature of the craft requires patronage. Brass, silver, and gold metal sheets are expensive for the artisan to invest in. Also, most works are customised to specific requirements, and can’t be crafted without instructions from a client. In today’s context, the craft can be applied in contemporary spaces with appropriate adaptations, especially in residential and office interiors. Large commissions in public spaces can give it greater visibility. More opportunities must be created to ensure that the craft is not lost with time.

(The author is an architect and a researcher)

Published 05 July 2024, 21:55 IST

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