There is a tradition among some of the tribal groups in northeast India of making cast metal figures using the traditional lost-wax (or cire perdue) process. In West Bengal, these tribal people live in the districts of Bankura, Burdwan (Barddhoman), and Midnapore in the western part of West Bengal. This area of West Bengal is part of a larger tribal belt that includes some sections of neighboring eastern Bihar and that stretches south through the state of Orissa and into Madhya Pradesh. Some of these tribes in West Bengal are known as Dhokra, and the statues made in this tradition are sometimes called dhokra in West Bengal.
In the lost-wax process as used by these metalworkers, a figure is first roughly modeled in clay. Over this inner clay core, the craftsman applies a layer of beeswax. This wax is applied in thin threads that are pressed through a bamboo tube or a syringe or other device. Sometimes the threads are criss-crossed into a lattice pattern, giving a characteristic appearance to the final figure. At some places on the figure, the worker may use a hot knife to smooth the surface of the threads.
Some metalworking clans in Madhya Pradesh add a second layer of cow dung mixed with clay on top of the inner clay core. Craftsmen in some villages of Madhya Pradesh, instead of using pure beeswax, use a boiled, strained, and cooled resin from the saal or sarai tree, or use a mixture of beeswax and resin.
Once the wax is modeled into a final form, two layers of clay are placed on top. First, a thin clay paste is added and allowed to dry; then a layer of rougher clay mixed with rice husks is added and also allowed to dry. Thus, the wax now forms a mold for the metal that will subsequently comprise the cast statue. A hole is cut through the top of the clay coverings to allow for the entrance of the molten metal. Likewise, a channel is made in the bottom to let the wax flow out of the mold. Metal wires are then tied around the whole construction to keep it intact.
Molten brass or bell metal is gradually poured into the mold through the top hole. The hot metal melts the wax, which flows out the exit hole in the bottom. The heat of the metal also chars the clay. After the metal has cooled, perhaps overnight, the wires are untied or cut and the outer layers of clay are chipped away. The inner core of now blackened clay may be scraped away through a hole or holes in the figure, or it may be left intact, giving weight to the cast piece. (This blackened clay core is often visible through holes in the castings.) When the metal figure is revealed after the outer layer of clay is removed, additional scraping, chiseling, or polishing may subsequently be done to the cast figure, according to the craftsman's intentions for the final form.
This tradition of lost-wax casting is an ancient one in India, going back to the Indus valley civilizations. In the medieval Chola kingdom of southern India, the height of this art was reached in magnificent life-size lost-wax bronzes. Today the tradition is carried on in the manufacture of small pieces by tribal groups or by Hindu metalworkers for tribal clients. The latter is the case in the Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh, an area particularly noted for its lost-wax castings.
The themes of tribal cast metal sculptures include images of Hindu or tribal gods and goddesses, bowls, figures of people or deities riding elephants, musicians, horse and rider figures, elephants, cattle, and other figures of people, animals, and birds.
Barnard, Nicholas. (1993). Arts and Crafts of India. London: Conran Octopus.
Bolon, Carol Radcliffe, and Amita Vohra Sarin. (1992). Bastar Brasses. Asian Art V(3, Summer): 35-51.
Cooper, Ilay, and John Gillow. (1996). Arts and Crafts of India. London: Thames and Hudson.
Sen, Prabhas. (1994). Crafts of West Bengal. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd. and Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corporation.
Shah, Shampa. (Ed.). (1996). Tribal Arts and Crafts of Madhya Pradesh. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
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