From the heart of West Bengal comes an art so eternal, it is cast in the absoluteness of metal. An ancient method of making metal artefacts, Dhokra art goes back 5000 years. What’s shocking, however, is that this tribal art form, done by the traditional metalsmiths of Bengal – the Dhokra Damar tribes, has survived the test of time and is still in use today. Here’s a look at the journey of this metal art from the heartlands of Bengal to the rest of the world.
What is Dhokra art?
Dhokra art is essentially stunning metal figurines fashioned from bronze and copper based alloys using a ‘lost wax casting’ known as ‘cire perdue’ in French. There are several processes involved in the making of Dhokra art and hence, a single piece could take up to a month or two to be created.
The process of making Dhokra art
First off, a core, slightly smaller than the desired artefact, is created using clay. It is left to dry in the sun and then given a coat of wax that is the desired thickness of the artefact. The way layer is then coated in a thin layer of clay and all of the design intricacies are carved onto this clay layer. After this clay layer dries, numerous clay layers are subsequently added and dried till the mould is hard and thick enough. It is then heated in order for the wax layer to melt.
Once the wax has been drained off, the molten metal is poured into the cavity through multiple channels and left to take the shape of the clay mould. When the metal has cooled off and dried, the clay mould is broken off into two or three equal pieces and the metal artefact is revealed. Because the mould is broken, no two Dhokra art pieces can ever look the same. What’s more, these objet des arts have not a single joint in them!
The final step in the process is applying patina to the metal object. This process enhances the surface by creating colour through the application of various chemicals. A final coat of wax is applied to enhance and preserve the patina.
Evolution of Dhokra art
While Dhokra art originated in West Bengal, over time the tribes moved to Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa and Chhattisgarh as well as places like Kerala and Rajasthan. Hence, the art has now spread all over India.
Most Dhokra artefacts are human or animal figurines. In fact, one of the earliest known lost wax casting artefacts is the legendary dancing girl of Mohenjo Daro.
The tribes are also known for making measuring bowls, religious deities and lamps, though the themes are quite limited given the fact that the metalsmiths do not have much exposure beyond their own private lives. That said, the technique that was once upon a time only used for creating articles for the tribesmen’s personal use has now evolved and is used to make jewellery boxes, tableware and more.
Decline of Dhokra art
It is unfortunate that this beautiful artwork is facing an obvious decline. The steady increase in the cost of raw material makes the end products way too expensive to attract enough buyers. As a result, artisans have been showing less interest in producing such master works. Lack of inspiration, encouragement and knowledge of new designs as well as the inability to adapt to modernization have also contributed to the decline of this artwork.
While there is still a heavy demand for these sculptures both commercially and in international markets, in cities like Milan, Paris and London, the primitive techniques and lack of access to modern technology causes a delay in production.
Sushil Sakhuja, an artist from Bastra began his journey in Dhokra by learning from his local master artist Shobha Ram Sagar. For 20 years, he has worked extensively with various Dhokra artists, won National Awards and participated in several international exhibitions as well. He says that the tribes originally used this art form to create religious idols and later when the spiritual erosion took place people started to create sculptures other than religious idols. Today, he helps in reviving the art by training the families in Bastra.
Images credit: Shutterstock