The small dusty lanes of Bankura village hide a very rich and ancient secret. The secret of how exquisite, intricate ornaments can be made using mundane, everyday items – mitti (mud) and old brass vessels – through master artistry, patience and old techniques.
The craftsmen of this part of Bengal use an ancient non-ferrous metal casting technique, called Dhokra craft. The art of Dhokra predates 4000 years, right to the Harappan Civilization. The infamous dancing girl statue uses the same technique of lost-wax that artisans in Bankura are using to this date. This tribal handicraft, while widely known for its primitive simplicity, requires utmost precision, painstaking steps and generations old know-how to come to life.
While the end products are made up of copper- based alloys, the first step of the Dhokra art process actually involves creating a rough mould using a mixture of clayey mud and rice chaff. These form the core over which wax-work is done and they dictate the shape of the end masterpiece.
Traditionally, the artisans would eyeball the size and shape of the initial inside core, but while working with Miharu to create more utility-based products, they use paper drawings to create more accurate, similar-sized inner moulds. This mould is then sundried until it hardens and becomes moisture free.
At this step in the process, the intricate craftsmanship really starts. Artisans use wax strips made out of a mixture of pure beeswax, resin and nut oil, to start shaping the design. Details are meticulously carved by hand, and the mud-mould is decorated with delicate pieces of wax. Smaller structures, such as faces, limbs or horns, are also added on the mould. At the end of this step, the mould starts to actually resemble the end product.
While the wax-covered moulds are carefully placed to dry, the artisans start prepping the mud which would form the final covering. The clay used at this step is sieved thoroughly to make sure it is as fine as possible. Extra care is given to this detail as coarse particles in mud can add a grainy texture to the wax-mould, causing all the delicate craftsmanship to go in vain.
Multiple layers of this mud are placed over the moulds. The mould is sun dried again and it ultimately looks like a hard, ball-like structure. At this point in the process, tiny drain ducts are also built in the mould which will facilitate a passage for melted wax and molten brass to move (more on this in the consequent steps).
A bowl-like container is made on the top of the mould for storing scrap brass. Brass metal, usually in the form of old utensils, are b(r)ought from metalsmiths and are hammered down into smaller chunks. These pieces are then stuffed in the mould. The whole mould is now covered by another layer of clayey mud-rice chaff mixture and left to harden for the last time.
Now, artisans make a rudimentary furnace, colloquially called bhattis, to bake the moulds. These furnaces are basically an open oven, and reach high temperatures of 45 degrees centigrade. Working here, especially during the hot summer months in Bengal, can get really sweaty and tiring really quickly.
The moulds are tossed in the furnace. While the brass starts to fluidify, the wax melts away leaving a negative space between the core and the inner walls of the mould. This space is then filled by liquified brass through the previously constructed drain ducts.
The moulds are taken out of the bhattis and allowed to cool for a few hours. After the brass solidifies again, the mud covering is carefully chipped off to reveal an unfinished brass structure.
Now, each item goes through extensive rounds of quality-control, buffing, polishing and finishing at Miharu’s workshop. After bringing out the best sheen possible, the artisan products are finally ready.
The amount of effort and dedication the master artisans put in to bring to you each piece of Dhokra ornament may not be apparent at the first glance. They have spent years honing their craft, and passed it down generations to keep the handicraft alive. The craftsmen live in necessitous conditions, and still practice their craft with a smile everyday – truly some of the most inspiring people. While the demand of this art-form, truly a part of India’s rich heritage, has prospered in recent years, a lot is still to be done to ensure that Dhokra doesn’t become extinct in the near future.
Do check out our stylish Collection of Dhokra Jewellery here at Dokra Delights
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