The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
When we talk about Mohenjo-Daro, immediately the famous statue of the dancing girl appears in front of our eyes. It is one of the earliest known ‘lost wax casting’ artifacts and this technique of non-ferrous metal casting, known as Dhokra (or Dokra) is 4,000 years old and still popular and in use.
Influence of Tribal Themes
Dhokra art is the famous art of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, a state of east-central India, whose rich tradition of craft and culture has always attracted art lovers from all over the world. This art is influenced by tribal themes related to animals, mythical and human creatures, and nature. The folk characters used to make the artifacts make this handicraft more valuable and that is the reason in every household or office, we find these pieces decorated as a pride possession. Dhokra artists make each piece with delicate attention to retaining its authenticity. The process involves manually casting brass and bronze metal with the help of a wax varnishing technique.
The unknown beauty of this art, in which metal crafts are made through wax casting techniques, is that it is eco-friendly! Most pieces are made with waste and scrap metal.
History Tells a Tale
Today in Bastar region, the small artisan group of the Ghadwas produces brass or bell metal objects. In Bastar, many folk stories are told about the origins of the Ghadwas. According to one most popular story some three hundred years ago, the ruler of Bastar, Bhan Chand, was presented a gift, a necklace crafted in Dhokra craft, for his beloved wife. He was so mesmerized with the beauty of craft that to honor the craftsman, he decided to bestow the title of Ghadwa on him. Ghadwa, derived from the word Ghalna, means to melt and work with wax.
Natural raw materials are used in the process of making Dhokra pieces. The famous Dhokra artist Rajender Baghel explains that the basic mold is made with fine sand and clay. Goat and cow dung or husk is added to it, which is then layered with pure beeswax found in the jungle. Then wax threads are prepared and wound around the clay mold until its entire surface is covered uniformly. Then it is cooked over a furnace while the wax is drained via ducts. The wax burns in the furnace leaving a free channel for the metal to flow. Molten metal (mainly brass and bronze) is poured inside the mold. The molds are taken out and water is sprinkled to cool them, once the metal is melted. By breaking them the cast figures are removed. It can take up to nine days to complete a three-foot-high sculpture.
Themes and Inspirations
This art is unique, not only because of its process or intricacy, but because no two Dhokra artworks are alike. Every single sculpture is crafted to be different from another and exquisite. Inspiration and themes generally come from mythology, nature, and day-to-day traditions and rituals. Intricate works of the local deities, sun, moon, jungle, flora, and fauna are used to give a decorative look to it.
One of the popular themes is the local deities – Jhitku-Mitki – and an interesting story accompanies these characters. Jhitku-Mitki were deeply in love with each other but their families were against their relationship. As a result, Jhitku was killed by Mitki’s brothers, when she refused to stay away from him. The people of Chhattisgarh worship them and usually make their figures.
Dhokra Jewelry, which is crafted using motifs of gods and goddesses, floral shapes, and rustic designs, is a creative and contemporary expression of an ancient technique. These days Dhokra artists are experimenting with designs to give it a stylish and international look. A woman can match it with her both ethnic and international styles.
Not only jewelry, items like decorative platters, containers, vases, photo frames, tea light candle holders, wall hangings, dining accessories, and cutlery and sculptures are also in trend. These objects are a smart mix of tribal designs and contemporary styles – each piece tells the enchanting story of the tribal legacy, culture, daily lives, and environment-friendly orientation.
Each Piece is Unique
Dhokra art is also practiced by the artists of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal also. No one can make the same Dhokra piece as every object is exclusive because each artisan of each state, creates it in his distinct way. Thin hands, legs, and a slender body – if you look closely, you will find that this tribal art is not perfect, body parts aren’t proportionate but it reflects its own history. Simplicity mixed with intricate work and tribal designs are the beauty of this art form.
Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi.