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Dhokra art

Dhokra Art is a Sustainable Tribal Legacy

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. 

Dhokra art (Image from Wikimedia Commons and under Creative Commons Licence 4.0)
Dhokra art (Image from Wikimedia Commons and under Creative Commons Licence 4.0)

History Tells a Tale 

The Dhokra craft has been discovered in the relics of the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappan civilizations and is proof of its historical and traditional importance as an art form.

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. 

Fascinating Process

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.

Dhokra art styles
Dhokra art styles

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.

Tribal Legacy

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. 


 

MAALicious: Love Your Artisan Jewelers

Those who love jewelry and the world around them, have something special to celebrate with this Valentine’s Day month.

Designed in New York City and made for the global Indian woman, Maalicious Jewelry was born two years ago out of a desire to empower women artisans in India. The brand aims to innovate and create quintessential jewelry with a rich dose of tradition. Its inspiration is Indian, tribal, and historic. All of its earrings are 24K gold-dipped. Some of its artists get over 50% of the proceedings from the jewelry, and a few of their earrings are made using sustainable material like clay.

Poonam Thimmaiah, Founder of Maalicious

Maalicious’ Founder, Poonam Thimmaiah, spent her childhood hopping across India as her father would get transferred every three years. Growing up in different states developed in her an aesthetic that’s appreciative of and deeply rooted in various Indian subcultures. “I have immense appreciation for Indian handicrafts, and have always dreamt of making products work with women artisans using dwindling art forms that were chic enough to cater to the urban crowd,” says Thimmaiah about the idea behind her handmade jewelry brand.

Born as a pet project, Maalicious was conceived at Poonam’s home in New York while mending a broken heart caused by a miscarriage in her 36th week of pregnancy. “As they say, adversity leads to opportunity, and delving into arts helped me during those dark times,” she recalls. This was combined with her longstanding desire to create and wear her own designs. 

Poonam partnered with differently-abled students studying jewelry in Mysore on her visit to India a few weeks later. She then worked with women artisans to integrate various Indian art forms into the jewelry. A lot of research, learning, sweat, and blood later, they have grown into what Maalicious is today. The brand has had some amazing moments in the last few years, including being featured in British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar Thailand, and more. Last year, they also showcased their jewelry at the New York Fashion Week and the Paris Fashion Week. This year, it has again been selected for the New York Fashion Week in February. 

Maalicious Jewelry

What sets Maalicious apart from others in the market is its goal of giving its customers beautiful, lasting jewelry while holding the values of quality, labor rights, and sustainability paramount. Maalicious is also making efforts to support women artisans and rejuvenate their traditional arts. Its goal is to provide talented women artisans with a platform to shine, thrive, and succeed. A women-only run firm, the brand has around six women artisans that it works with on a regular basis in India, and has also collaborated with a few others in Italy and Ukraine. Their long-term goal is to stand in solidarity with skilled women and build a platform where they can support each other. “We would love to give back more to marginalized women and help with their sustenance,” says Thimmaiah. 

Further, Maalicious uses responsibly sourced and sustainable materials in their products, such as terracotta clay or red baked earth, silk thread, and wood, which have been part of our culture for centuries. Its distinctiveness also stems from their need to innovate in this space. “Everything is handmade and so, imperfect but that’s what makes them unique,” says Thimmaiah. For instance, their Vintage earrings are made of terracotta clay and then hand-painted. Their customizable Alice earrings can be personalized with pictures from their customers. Further, most of Maalicious’ signature pieces have a story from India’s glorious past behind them.

One of Maalicious’ earrings is a tribute to a unique and fascinating community called the Drokpas, about 5,000 of whose members today survive in the high altitudes of Ladakh. Believed to be the oldest and purest human tribe, the Drokpas inhabit the cluster of seven villages located down the Indus River. They are known for their liberal views, elaborate jewelry, chiseled features, and beautiful gardens. The Amrita Sher-Gil piece is a tribute to the famous Indian painter known as the pioneer of modern Indian art. Often known as “India’s Frida Kahlo”, she painted many self portraits and captured the daily lives of Indian women in the 1930s, often revealing a sense of their loneliness. 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.