Vol. 5 Num 64 Fri. July 30, 2004  

Dokra: Revival of a lost wax metal craft

Nomadic tribes who roam the earth restlessly--what permanence do they leave us with, as a mark of their passage? The Dokra or Dhokra group of tribal craftsmen who range through the landscapes of West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh give us a timeless heritage of beautifully shaped and ornamented products of cast metals.

And that is what we called Dokra today.

What makes Dokra unique is that no two pieces are alike. Deftly created by hand, the objects have an individualistic touch. Primarily made from brass scrap, the objects also have a core of clay preserved within the metal casting, unlike other metal work.

In Dokra life revolves around creating beautiful shapes out of alloys. The shapes range from the charmingly traditional to the elegantly modern. Usually made of brass, the objects have patterns that are geometric, with straight lines and curves forming simple and striking presentations such as through various kinds of images and figures of gods and goddesses, like Lakshmi, Lakshmi-Narayan, Siva-Parvati flanked by Ganesh and Kartik, and birds and animals like elephants, horses, owls and peacocks. Originally, these craftsmen were nomads, and the intrinsic beauty of Dokra also match the nomadic biography.

Britto Arts Trust-- an artist-led organisation recently organised a workshop on heritage craft to promote its making process amongst the younger artists of the country. And for that they have brought a Dokra artisan Ramu Karmakar from Dariapur in Burdwan district. A total of 21 participants took part in the workshop. A similar workshop was organised in Chittagong as well.

'Dokra reached its pinnacle of glory in the mid- nineteenth century due to royal patronage. Starting from temple carving to religious idols to exquisite animal figures, the art form became very popular,' recalls Ramu. 'The industry ebbed at the outset of the Second World War. After the war there arose a tremendous scarcity of raw materials as well as the patrons of this form of art. This led the virtual extinction of the art,' he added.

The making of Dokra is very interesting. Dokra system of metal casting is said to be oldest form of metal casting and is technically known as 'cire per due' or lost wax process. ' The making is a very long process. After going through 8 to 9 steps the Dokra reveals with its own intrinsic character', says Ramu. Brass, wax, mustard oil, resin or dhuna or dhoop, clay and small furnace are needed to create Dokra.

The craftsman first shapes the item of production with clay mixed with sand and usually use the red clay. The model after it is fully dried is covered with a thin layer wax, over which thin resin strands are applied in definite patterns to create the ornamentation and to delineate the various features of the item.

The making of resin strands are very significant. The resin is first kneaded, beaten and then rolled into thin strands with mustard oil.

The wax covered object is then again covered thoroughly with a thick layer of clay, with a cup shaped opening on top. Into this cup shaped opening, pieces of brass are put and the whole thing is covered in clay to seal the metal in. Brass is usually bought second hand and cut into small pieces.

The next stage is to make an oven out of clay and put the whole covered object inside. When it is baked, the clay hardens, the wax melts and flows out of a hole conveniently placed in the bottom, the metal also melts and flows from the top to fill the empty space left by the wax. The casting is complete.The whole process is done under 1400-1500 degree centigrade and takes 6 to 7 days for cooling down properly. After the whole thing has cooled, the clay covering is broken open and the rough edges of the object are filed down.

It is unbreakable and may be polished with tamarind, a coir fibre or a soft cotton cloth dipped in Brasso,' said Ramu.

During the workshop Ramu was quite tense as it was difficult to dry the products because of rain. ' Bangladeshi artists are really talented and they can pick up the craft very easily,'said Ramu.

In the past, before making bronze idols, the craftsman had to carefully study the verses from the Shilpashastra. The verses were called dhyana and instructed the craftsman on the physical measurements, proportions, description of the deity, characteristics, symbolism and above all, aesthetics. But those days are gone. Now these craftspersons are struggling to survive. That's why we hear a melancholy appeal from Ramu, 'This craft is now almost extinct as the artisans are not getting any patronage from the government.

A craftsperson gives a final touch to a Dokra piece