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     Volume 4 Issue 16 | October 8 , 2004 |

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Preserving a 200-year-old Family Tradition

Kavita Charanji

Go to Dhamrai village, located 39 kms northwest of Dhaka, and you will glimpse an old mansion which dates back over 100 years. This is the picturesque home and workplace of Sukanta Banik, proprietor of Dhamrai Metal Crafts. Carrying on a flourishing 200-year-old family business, Sukanata unveils an eight metal statue which depicts a pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. There is the central figure of Vishnu, the preserver, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu.

The eight metals are copper, tin, zinc, iron, mercury, lead, gold and silver. Despite a hefty price tag of Taka 12,000, 'there is a huge potential market for statues in countries such as India and the US,' says Banik. 'People in many parts of the world believe that the metals represent the planets and keep evil spirits away,' he adds.

Also displayed in Banik's showroom are a variety of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu statues, bowls, decorative items and pots made out of metal.

Among Banik's major current works is a traditional Indian chess set which he began this June. The product, to be completed by the end of November, is priced at Taka 1 lakh. Overall, he says, the price tag for metal crafts varies from Taka 500 to Taka 60,000.

There are five techniques in metal craft. Banik's firm most commonly uses the Lost Wax Method for statues .

The predominantly Hindu Dhamrai metal craft business dates way back to the Pala dynasty (800-1100 AD). During this period both early Buddhist and Hindu settlements once flourished. Now Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and folk statues are a popular draw.

Banik's family are pioneers in the metal craft. Beginning with his great grandfather Sarat Chandra Banik and going downwards to his grandfather Sarba Mohan Banik and his father Phani Bhushan Banik, Sukanta took over the reins of the family business in 2000. A post graduate in political science from Savar College, Bhanik recalls those difficult early days: "When I joined, the business was in a bad shape because of the slump in demand from expatriate customers. This lasted from 1993-2000. Now the business is run by my parents and me. The export market is booming, especially US and India."

A major supporter of Banik is the Matthew S Friedman, an USAID official, who he describes as his 'friend, philosopher and guide'. Freidman, who left Bangladesh last year, has authored books on metal casting. He also helped Banik with slide shows to show the techniques of this craft. This helped generate awareness about the metal cast industry.

So what is his company's unique selling proposition? "Other countries have a master mold so that they can make more pieces easily. In Bangladesh, we use the freehand technique and use a one time use mold, so that there is a richer variety of products. Also our statues are finer than that of others, more ornate and better designed. We work with different metals so there is a variation in statues, says Banik."

One of Dhamrai Metal Crafts' major buyers is Kyle Tortora, a US art dealer. The enterprising Kyle visits Dhamrai twice a year. On one such visit, he bought a statue for Taka 9,000 and reaped a bonanza when he sold it for US$ 1,500 in his own country.

Though the export market is flourishing, Banik says it is still a struggle for metal cast firms to eke out a living. Before Liberation, for instance, people of about 33 villages in Dhamrai-Shimulia were in the business, but now only around five families are involved in the craft. Likewise with stiff competition from cheaper aluminum and plastic products coming in from India and other countries in the region, the market for these handcrafted items has dwindled.

There are other bottlenecks to deal with. It is quite a hassle for example, to get the necessary export clearance from the Archaeology Department which may declare that the crafts are not antique. Then there is the problem of raw materials such as metal scrap which are smuggled out from Bangladesh to India.

Banik has some strategies to counter these hurdles as chairperson of the NGO called Initiative for the Preservation of Dhamrai Metal Casting (IPDMC). This organisation trains artisans in metal craft and the Lost Wax Method through workshops in Dhamrai, Savar and other places.

'We need more publicity and advertising about all the five techniques of metal casting,' says Banik. What's heartening is the response from school children to the craft. Last year, IPDMC held a one-day workshop on the Lost Wax Method for 200 students from American International School Dhaka, French International School and Japanese International School. Recalls Banik, 'We had a very good response. The children sat near the artisans who explained the technique and then made butterflies, snakes, elephants and so on. We cast these and gave them back to the children. This year we have trained 160 students so far.'

A major support to the IPDMC is the US $ 14,000 aid from the US Ambassador's Fund. This will go to broaden the market through documentaries, skill exchange programmes with Nepal, training workshops in Dhamrai and school programmes.

For those less adventurous, it is possible to see Banik's delicate and eye catching metal work in Aarong and Aranya. His company is also exploring marketing options with Probortana, a craft's shop.

Lost Wax Method
In this technique, bees' wax is mixed with paraffin and the wax is used to make statues. A 800 watt electricity bulb is placed in the light box to help to keep the wax soft and pliable. First the craftpersons make the legs of the statue and then the other parts of the body. Then the wax is heated and the parts are put together. The product is then decorated. Subsequently, three layers of clay are put on the metal piece. The first layer is a very fine clay solution using a brush. The second layer is clay mixed with jute fibre and sand. The third layer is clay with rice husk.

The next step is casting the mold. Around 100-120 kg of metal is cast at a time. After the metalusually brass in Bangladesh-- has been added to the crucible (a container in which the raw unheated metal is placed) the mold and the crucibles are placed in an oven for firing at a high temperature. Subsequently, the melted metal is poured into molds and given finishing touches.


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