Written by Dr. Tilak Purakayastha
Transcreated by Gautam Guha
Since the ancient times in our country, artists have expressed themselves through the art of metal casting and metal crafting. Since the dawn of urban civilization, the technique of metal casting has been used to make ornaments and armaments as well as article of daily use. Dokra is an important nonferrous metal casting process prevalent in Indian subcontinent. Some believe that the word Dokra has originated from the word Dokna which essentially means casting. The process uses the “lost wax” technique also known as cire perdue.
A workshop (The Call of Dokra) on the craftmanship of Dokra was organised recently by Chalchitra Academy at the Nandimukh Cultural Centre. In the last few years, Chalchitra Academy has made untiring efforts to rejuvenate the socio-economic profiles and conditions of the traditional artisanship of Bengal to save them from apathy and oblivion. The organization has to its credit, several successful workshops on 𝑆𝑜𝑙𝑎̅ art, lac dolls, Chou masks, Babu dolls, Broto rangolis and Pata chitra.
The workshop provided a platform to the exponents of traditional crafts and the urban, art school trained artists to exchange ideas and skills to evolve new themes and forms. Truly speaking, it is only in the traditional artisanship that we can discover our roots. The workshop was attended among others by lac doll artist Brindaban Chandra, Babu doll artist Sambhunath Das, Brotokatha Rangoli artist Bidhan Biswas. Notable artists like Jogen Chowdhury, Prasenjit Sengupta, Tapas Konar, Mrinal Mondol, who is also the Director of Chalchitra and the ceramic artists from Kolkata Partha Dasgupta and Satish Chandra also were there. It was largely steered by Shubha Karmakar, the illustrious Dokra artist from Guskara Burdwan and two of his assistants Gourango Karmakar and Rajesh Karmakar.
The process of Dokra is complex and it takes years of practice to master its technique. Most of the artists attending the workshop did not have the experience of working on three-dimensional art forms. One could therefore notice a spontaneous and interesting dimension to the existing form of Dokra emerging at the workshop. Prasenjit Sengupta’s style was academic and this style was evident in the Dokra sculptures that he made. The works of Partha Dasgupta revealed a simplicity of form which marked his outputs at the workshop as well. Jogen Chowdhury worked directly on the wax plate. Tapas Biswas being already familiar with the form produced a different kind of Dokra form. Brindaban Chandra and Sambhunath Das introduced images from their own repertoire and fused them with the craftmanship of Dokra. Bidhan Biswas transformed his patterns of lines in the Dokra form by using threads of wax and pitch. Enthusiastic experiments by other artists present at the workshop produced innovative and interesting works at the workshop.
Even though the cire perdue process has been prevalent in the area known as Rahr Bengal for almost four thousand years, the adoption of wax threading for hollow casting technique that is adopted for Dokra is not native to Bengal. The technique has travelled mainly from the Bastar region of Chattisgarh district in Central India. Tribes like Gond, Damar and Dekar used this technique to produce utensils for daily use. Later they started making ornaments, totems and images of gods and goddesses. These artisans migrated to more prosperous regions due to natural calamities, wars or even invitations from the local chieftains. The craft in this way reached Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Bengal. During the reign of the Mallas, the Dokra artisans settled in the Bikna area of Bankura district. Similarly, during the reign of the Gops, a settlement came up in the Gushkara area of Burdwan district. Many of these artisans were absorbed in the already existing community of blacksmiths. In different parts of the country, the artisans were known as Ghansi, Mangan or Viswakarma.
The technique of Dokra as prevalent in Bengal is different in as much as the core of the Dokra sculptures are not hollow as is common in Tamil Nadu or Odisha. The primary structure often is made directly with wax or with clay over which fine threads of a mixture of wax and tar and olibanum are laid. Most of the artists participating in the workshop used clay. They first made the clay model and then layered it finely with wax. Wax being expensive and often unavailable, the Dokra artists make mixtures of wax, olibanum and even tar. Once the model is made, the craftsman then creates layers of fine threads in different styles on it. Some of these styles are Janjha, Mochra, chanp, nenua and Jaldar. After this is done, it is covered with another layer of mixture made with equal amount of Loam and Sandy soil. Once this layer is dry, two more layers are made; the first one of etel clay (non porous soil) and then on top of it, that of the sandy soil or the terracotta soil.
Channels are created in these casts for outlet of liquid wax mix and inlet of hot liquid metal. Two big ovens are used. One is used to burn the clay cast so that the clay part gets solidified and the hot liquid wax comes out through the outlet channel. The second oven is used to smelt bronze or brass, the metal which is the ingredient of the Dokra artefacts. When the hot liquid metal emits a greenish or bluish light, it is poured into the red hot clay cast. A legacy of over thousand years, this extremely arduous task is performed by artists like Subho Karmakar with an astonishing ease. Once the case becomes cold, the clay is broken and the Dokra sculpture emerges like a new born baby coming out of the mother’s womb. It is silvery in colour and once is polished, it regains the colour of the metal. The sculpture is now complete.
The Dokra artefacts of Bengal are of a very high standard. Due to financial hardships, many artists are no longer interested in this craft as it no longer provides them with the bare minimum sustenance to keep the body and soul together. The recognition that it deserves has remained elusive for most of these artisans. The conditions of the artisans continue to be wretched and impecunious in spite of the fact that many urban artists have received international recognition for their works inspired by this craft. Meera Mukherjee is one example of the urban sculptors who have used Dokra technique extensively. In some cases, modern and post-modern interventions have often transformed these simple crafts beyond recognition, which also is not desirable.
The general apathetic attitude of Bengalis to their own traditions and heritage has affected the Dokra craftmanship also. The promise of Chalchitra Academy is to keep these traditions alive till these become economically viable.