That the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro has stirred the imaginations of many archaeologists over the centuries with its striking appearance and diminutive, yet bold and enigmatic charisma, is no secret. While no one has been able to decode the Indus Valley script till date, they did decipher the metallurgical skills of the Harappans who were experts at the Lost Wax Casting of the non-ferrous metal, also known as Cire Perdue in French. It was this technique that their descendants from the Dhokra Damar tribe would still use – 4000 years later! Welcome to the world of Dhokra Craft. Dhokra is named after an ironsmith tribe ‘Kamar’, native to the state of West Bengal, excelling in this primitive craft form. Restricted now to the western districts of the state, namely – Bankura, Midnapore, Purulia, and Burdwan, this traditional metal smith community has now spread as far as Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and even Andhra Pradesh.
Originally, a nomadic tribe, the Dhokra craftsmen went from one village to another selling their indigenous crafted rustic metal ware – ceremonial and religious figurines, ornaments, and kitchen ware. Various elements of nature – meandering rivers, patchwork brown hills, and verdant forests – all added to their advantage. Wax, resin, and firewood from the forests, clay from the riverbed and a furnace with a hole dug in the ground – That’s pretty much everything they needed to craft an extraordinary form out of ordinary raw materials. Can it get any simpler than this? What started with traditional motifs inspired from their folk stories, such as animals (mainly elephants), birds, cattle, kings, human heads, containers with or without locking devices, and Hindu or tribal Gods or Goddesses is now wowing the world with its global yet earthy artifacts and utility products.
The lost wax method of Dhokra casting is even more fascinating than it sounds. The primary raw material – brass is collected from scrap and old brass utensils. Three types of soil – Black soil, fine soil from the riverbed, and ant-hill soil are used. Black soil which forms the ‘Dhokna’ or cast of the model is collected from the fields. This soil is mixed with rice husk which gives it additional strength while drying. A basic model of this soil mix, known as Kotan, is crafted from the dough and left for drying for a few days.
A second layer of soil mix is prepared combining the river bed soil, cow dung and water. The underlying reason for this soil mix is that it can be easily molded and gives a good shape to the final Dhokra item, while the cow dung allows the wax to melt out of the cast. This second soil mix is applied to the basic Kotan. When the second layer too dries up after 4-6 days, it is sanded to smoothness and is coated with a paste of green bean leaves. This layer prevents the clay mixture from peeling off and greases up the overall surface of the model. Natural beeswax is mixed with resins from the tree Damara orientals, and nut/mustard oil, kneaded into soft dough and is pressed through indigenous hand presses or sieves to produce thin, long threads or strands. It is these threads that impart exquisite details to a Dhokra model. This wax is applied on the clay core both in the form of sheets and in intricate patterns such as braids, jaali, and coiling/concentric circles etc. A third, thick layer of fine soil comprising riverbed soil, coal, and cow dust is applied to this wax encompassed model and vents for pouring liquefied brass are created during the same process.
A subsequent layer of clay from the ant hills is applied yet again on the dry model including the pouring channels for brass. The mould is then thoroughly dried in the sun before being thrown into an oven for casting. Two ovens are prepared simultaneously – one for melting brass and another for heating up the wax-clay models. Hot molten brass is poured into the model which replaces the molten wax, taking the impression of the clay model. The clay model is cooled in water and then carefully broken to reveal the brass Dhokra item. Voila! We have our Dhokra artifact ready.
While it all sound too easy to our ears, the entire process of lost wax casting is extremely time consuming and involves multiple stages and a lot of personalization and creativity goes into each Dhokra item. That’s the reason why no two Dhokra items can be exactly same. Traditionally used to make ornaments, animals, figurines, idols of local deities, utensils, and lamps, Dhokra is anything but blasé and has now adapted itself to cater to modern day décor requirements and is conquering the world with new age designs such as accent bowls, jewellery (mixed with other materials/fabrics), votives, mobile holders, bells and chimes, cutlery, and planters etc.
While a major chunk of Dhokra comes from West Bengal, Chhattisgarh isn’t too far behind. The tribal folklore of Chhattisgarh remains incomplete without the mention of Jhitku-Mitki, local figurines worshiped by the Gond and Gharwa tribes. Legend has it that Mitki, who was the only sister of seven brothers of a Gond family and was betrothed to Jhitku to be married. Both did fall in love eventually, but one day her brothers dreamt that their Goddess was demanding a human sacrifice, and on finding no one suitable, they sacrificed Jhitku. Mitki, who couldn’t bear this loss, took her own life. Since then, Jhitku-Mitki were immortalised by the tribals who believe that their desires get fulfilled by worshiping the lover couple.But, why are we telling you this story? Because Dhokra sculptures of Jhitku-Mitki are travelling world over and are basking in their moment of fame and glory.
After remaining in the background for long for being primitively designed and rustic looking, Dhokra is finally getting its due with support from the Government organisations and NGOs. Although there is another side too to this beautiful craft form – from lagging in many quarters owing to the lack of technological advancement, basic infrastructure, holistic training, and knowledge of marketing channels, to being short of financial support to a dwindling number of craftsmen keeping this ancient craft form alive – Dhokra has a plethora of obstacles to overcome. Though with time, this small industry can be very well organised, as of now, it looks there’s a lot to be done before this stunning, craft form conquers the world with its utilitarian yet purely aesthetic appeal.