Bengal has been home to tons of crafts and art forms since time immemorial. The magnificent metal casting at the heart of West Bengal has grabbed attention of not only art enthusiasts from India but from around the world. This is a legendary form of metal casting known as Dhokra art that can be traced back to five thousand years ago. What’s interesting is that this tribal art form, handcrafted by the traditional craftsmen called the DhokraDamar tribes, has survived the wrath of industrialization and still stands strong in this era of modernization when all the rich crafts are on the verge of dying.
Dhokra art involves the technique of metal casting spectacular figurines from bronze and copper based alloys using a process of ‘lost wax casting’. There are numerous processes involved in the making of Dhokra art and hence, a single piece could require a minimum of two months or so, depending on the size and intricacy.
The origination of Dhokra art trails to the tribal communities of Bengal who later on shifted to the neighboring states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Tribes associated to the craft can be found in places like Kerala and Rajasthan. Thus, the craft gained a nationwide outreach. Most Dhokra items are human or animal figurines. The ancient dancing girl figurine from MohenjoDaro was also made from the lost wax process. Some of the artefacts handcrafted by the tribes are measuring bowls, religious deities and lamps. Even though, the themes are quite limited due to limited exposure of the metal craftsmen.
The elaborate method that the metal smiths have to undergo includes a lot of steps. Firstly a core is taken which is a little smaller than the desired size. It is created using clay. It is sun dried and then given a wax coating that equals the desired thickness of the artefact. The method includes coating in a thin layer of clay and all of the groove sand patterns are carved onto this clay layer. After drying, numerous clay layers are gradually added and dried till the mold is hard and thick enough. It is then heated for melting of the coating of wax. Later on, the molten metal is poured into the mold through multiple channels and left to take the shape of the clay mold. When the metal has dried after cooling, the clay mold is broken off into two or three equal pieces and the metal artefact comes out.
The uniqueness of a Dhokra artefact is such that every piece is exclusive as the mold is broken and as they are metal casted, there is not a single joint in it. The final step includes the application of patina. This process highlights the surface by creating color through the reaction of different chemicals. A final coat of wax is applied to protect the patina.
One of the positive aspects of this craft is it is still in demand, in cities like Milan, Paris and London, both commercially and in international markets. But the primitive techniques and lack of access to modern technology causes a delay in manufacturing and export.
Dhokra has evolved a lot over the centuries. The technique that was once used for crafting artefacts of personal use has now evolved and is used to make jewelry boxes, tableware and more although, it is sad that this amazing artwork is facing a steady decline. The tribes originally used this art form to handcraft religious idols but after the spiritual erosion, artisans started to craft figure other than religious idols. The increase in the cost of raw material makes the end products way too expensive to attract enough buyers. Thus, metal smiths have been showing less interest in producing such master works. There is hardly any organization that looks after their needs or inspires them. Encouragement and enlightenment about new designs according to evolving consumer tastes as well as the inability to adapt to modernization have contributed heavily to the downfall of this artwork.