Preserving an Age Old Heritage
The Metal Craft of Dhamrai
Imran H. Khan
In the days gone by, Bangladesh was renowned for its metal craft. Though this craft was available in numerous parts of Bangladesh, the upazila of Dhamrai, some 40 kilometres north-west of Dhaka, was the epitome of the industry. This town was once the capital of metal craft of Bangladesh, silently nestled on the banks of the rivers Bongshi and Kakilajani. There were more than 30 villages that indulged in this special craft for their livelihood but 'today only nostalgia remains.'
Dhamrai has seen craftsmen mainly in the bonze and brass metal. Other than that, the area was renowned for the huge handcrafted wooden chariots that were made with perfect finishing and detailed craftsmanship. Sadly, the legacy exists no longer. The metal industry was one that was mostly dominated by the Hindu community. As their numbers gradually decreased, and also due to the wide availability of cheaper plastic materials and melamine, the metal industry witnessed a decline. The industry now just barely survives and the people behind this craft have been reduced to mere hundreds. There still exists one family in this region who has seen five generations of its craftsman in this trade. This family of merchants has painstakingly managed to cling on to this dying tradition with the dream that one day this craft will again emerge. Like a phoenix it will rise from the ashes, or rather from the baking ovens. But maybe they are just given to wishful thinking.
There are mainly four methods of making bronze and brass metal craft: the traditional lost wax method, clay casting method, sand casting method and the hammering method. The most unique and orthodox method among the four is the lost wax method.
The lost wax technique is an ancient art that dates back twenty centuries. In places like Egypt, India and China there were craftspeople who resorted to this method. In this technique, bee wax and paraffin are mixed and the wax is used to make statues. Just imagine, by taking some wax, moulding into the shape of a god or goddess, covering it with the 'special' mud from the nearby riverbank and letting it dry before finally letting it bake in the brick oven one can bring into existence unique metal sculptures. Two and a half hours into the firing process, the temperature in the over reaches a soaring thousand degree centigrade. This melts the wax out, leaving the form of the unborn idol in the womb of the mud, waiting for the molten metal to give it the final shape; a shape created by the delicate hands of the artisan. As the wax is burned out leaving behind the space for the metal to be poured in, the title 'lost wax' took its literal meaning from the process. The transformation and the end creation is truly worthy of the gods. The detail of the idols will depend on the nimble hands of the craftsman and the work he does on the piece. The more creative the craftsman, the more aesthetically beautiful is the craft. What makes this craft even more interesting is that every ingredient that goes into the making of the idols comes from natural materials.
The best thing about the lost wax method is that the creation is a unique one. One can find deities cast in metal in other countries but they are made from a single mould, hence the craft has many replicas and that makes them really cheap. However, when it comes to the lost wax method, there is but only one end creation, be it a mere decoration piece or a form of an idol, as the moulds become obsolete after a figure is sculpted. As duplication is not possible, it is expensive. This form of art only exists in Dhamrai in Bangladesh.
A documentary was produced by the Initiative of the Preservation of Dhamrai Metal Casting with support from the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation of the United States Department of State. This document will help to preserve a tradition that is quite unique to Bangladeshi artisans and something, which the world admires in awe. The sad thing is that many people from Bangladesh are totally unaware and unconcerned about this dying heritage. Like many other popular art form this too may see its demise if efforts are not made to provide assistance to the remaining artisans. True connoisseurs only come to know about this unique form of craft when they are being exported to the foreign lands. As they are being attracted to the exquisite quality of the Dhamrai crafts, efforts need to be made at the home front to keep the tradition alive.
Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain
(R) thedailystar.net 2005