The art of metal casting and creating sculptures using moulds has been around for thousands of years; in particular, the ‘lost — wax’ method of metal casting can be traced back to tribal societies and communities as far back as 4000 years.
In India, this ‘lost — wax’ method is called Dhokra, named after the Dhokra Damar tribe of Bengal which practised the craft. The dhokra craft is still practised by many indigenous communities across the country, spread across a vast region that covers the modern states of Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, even going as far south as Odisha and Tamil Nadu.
Among these communities, the Ghasi tribal community, which is largely present in the Kandhamal district in the East Indian state of Odisha, specialises in black Dhokra hadnicrafts, a casting method that uses bell metals to create beautiful, black metal sculptures. The dhokra crafts have been practised by the Ghasis for thousands of years, passed down from one generation to the next, but over the last two decades, this tradition has been slowly dying out in the region.
In Kandhamal, communal tensions and two riots — in 1999 and 2008 — propelled the region into national ingnominy. Almost overnight, Kandhamal turned into byword for communal violence. The fallout of the violence has been immense, stifling development and creating discord between communities.
One of the inadvertent victims of the violence in Kandhamal has been the art of black dhokra. The riots of 2008, with the high incidence of distress migration, along with increasing costs of the metals has led to the traditional black dhokra craft slowly fading away.
Things are further complicated by the current situation faced by Ghasis. Most members of the Ghasi community are landless, living at the edge of the forests in Kandamahal. Rampant alcoholism among the men makes it difficult for them to sustain any occupation, leaving daily wage labour as the only viable option of livelihood
Many of the Ghasi youth, the future custodians of the dhokra craft, also feel that the returns from dhokra is disproportionate to the effort put in.
The Darbar Sahitya Sansad (DSS), an NGO that focuses on livelihood promotion in Odisha’s rural districts, has been working to turn things around by actively engaging with the community to help revive the tradition
During our field trip to the Barakhama village in Kandhamal, we had the opportunity to watch the artisans at work. The children sat with their parents learning the craft; entire families sat on the porch of their homes working in quiet companionship.
The dhokra craft involves an elaborate process of creating a mould using clay, using beeswax to create intricate designs and covering it with another layer of river soil. The mould is then placed in an improvised furnace, causing the beeswax to melt and drain away. The mould is then filled with the molten bell metal, and once the mould hardens, it is filed for several hours to reveal the intricate design underneath.
In Barakhama, the work that the work by the DSS has brought about a huge change in the lives of the artisans. The organisation conducted workshops to train the local artisans in contemporary designs. It helped the craftsment organise themselves according to their level of skills, with each one specialising in a particular design.
The biggest change the DSS has brought about is that it procures the raw materials — the metals, beeswax, resin — in bulk, before distributing them to the artisans. DSS also worked to secure advance orders from customers and forwards this to the artisan community, who commence work according to the customers’ requirement and fulfill orders on time.
In the past, middle men exploited the artisans in Barakhama by paying them in grain, making it hard for them to place a monetary value on their craft. Today, the system put in place by the DSS ensures that the craftsmen receive regular monthly payments by cheque, which encourages them to use their bank accounts. Many of the craftsmen no longer feel the need to leave their village, but remain there, earning an average of Rs 7,000–8,000 every month.
At present, around 50 families are being supported the DSS. Many of these families also apply for a low-cost loan through Rang De, which helps them buy raw materials and meet immediate costs. The DSS also received funding by the Tata Trusts to help the communities expand the scope of their operations.
We decided to stay the night at the villages in Barakhama. As the evening progressed to dusk in the village, some of the men gathered together in the courtyard with the dhols (traditional drums) and began to dance. At night, the dim light of the lanterns streamed in through the doorways. Some of the houses had helped themselves to an electricity connection by connecting a wire to a nearby pole.
Above all this, it was heartening to see the artisan community returning to a stable, traditional livelihood and preserving the cultural traditions of their ancestors.