an ancient tradition calling out for help
If you are the sort of person who finds old traditions or customs fascinating, you are sure to know about those kasha or bell metal thalis or big plates that your grandfather used to eat his meals off or about that big cooking pot your grandma cooked biryanis in for her entire brood. Mind you those are antiques and collector's items now, especially if they had their names embossed on them.
Bell metal or kasha utensils were part and parcel of household affairs in the olden days, starting from the cooking spatula to glasses to storing pots. In fact these metal utensils were treated as investments; if in a dire situation you could pawn them as well. Now obviously times have changed and these regular household items have become artefacts.
Sukanta Banik's showroom in the ruins of his patriarchal property is rich in quality content. Though things are haphazardly bundled in corners near the stairwell, if you walk around the big, high-ceilinged rooms, with sparrows flying past you and chirping loudly to claim their holes in the wall, you will find a grand Nataraj or lord of the dance posing for you, huge guardian horses by the door to shoo off evil, Ma Durga in all her grandeur standing on a dais commanding your devotion and lions equally majestic in their roles of guarding the entrance.
When you take your eyes off the gigantic, almost life-like statues your heart melts to find leaping frogs, singing frogs, dancing frogs sitting coyly on the shelves urging you to look deeper. The miniature elephants, dragons, horses and every item on display draws you in.
“Unfortunately I might have to wrap up my family business of a thousand years pretty soon. The market for my crafts is shrinking; I have no means of selling my crafts with such bureaucratic battles going on. I had an overseas order a year ago but my shipment is gathering dust in some office because the customs intervened in the deal saying that these are antiques that I am selling off. They asked the archaeology department to verify the year of production and verify that these are not antiques. Even though there is the Dhamrai Metal Crafts (DMC) seal and date of production, nothing seems to be happening for the past seven months. In the meantime my client got his deal sealed from India and Bangladeshi business is losing ground,” Banik laments emphasising that these are not artefacts, rather these new statues are given an antique polish.
“These statues or metal works are given an antique look now, but these are all made in recent times and anyone with a little knowledge on the subject, can vouch for the authentication,” he explains.
Banik works with the nearly 5000-year-old lost wax method, called so because most artisans these days use the master mould method -- creating numerous pieces from one master mould. Banik uses paraffin and bees wax to make moulds that are intricately worked upon by an artist giving a thorough, detailed look. Then this wax model is mud wrapped three times separately to give it a three-layered tight shroud, and then burnt in the oven at 1000 degrees. When the wax inside melts it leaves its mark on the mud mould, which after burning, turns to terra cotta. Then the liquid metal is poured in and the metal cools off taking the shape of the mould. You crack the terra cotta wrap and get your raw metal craft that goes through many polishing and filing stages before finding its way to the showroom.
They follow the Pala dynasty art form and as they do not use any master mould, each piece is unique and how it'll turn out is unpredictable to determine.
“Metal crafting is our only source of earning our bread and butter, our artisans know no other trade to survive, if they don't get work orders, how do you think this heritage will hold ground let alone flourish?
“If only the government would take pity on this dying art and give us some opportunity to exhibit our crafts in international fairs and trade fairs in general, then at the least we could have a platform to showcase this vanishing tradition. Our method of making these products are indeed very rare and thus our crafts are unique and intricate in designs, adding extra value to it. Each piece, if small takes about 10 to 15 days, medium ones take around three months to produce and the large ones can, at times, take over a year. These are mostly sold to Mandirs, interested foreigners or cultural and artistic-minded people, who collect them as art pieces. We supply mostly to Aarong,” he adds details about his current status.
“We recycle the scrap brass products that we buy from the market, we melt them and get our liquid metal but for bronze or the eight metals we make our own liquid,” he explains.
Each metal represents each planet; many people believe products of the eight metals or oshtodhatu as locally called bring them good luck.”
Copper, zinc, tin, iron, gold, silver, mercury and lead make the eight metals; while brass or pital is an alloy of copper and zinc. The alloy bronze that is commonly used is actually 90 percent copper and 10 percent tin, while kasha or bell metal that got its name for the bell like sound it makes is 70 percent copper and 30 percent tin.
Auspicious or not, good luck amulet or not, metals and their shining lustre adds charm to your home so lets us try to revive this vanishing tradition even if it's for keepsake.
By Raffat Binte Rashid
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed