The earliest evidence of Dhokra (metal bell) craftsmanship was found in relics from the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa civilizations, suggesting the historical and traditional importance of the industry. The emblematic statue of the dancer, unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro, is proof of the origin, salience and continuity of craftsmanship.
As Academician Rajesh Kochhar points out in his monograph, ‘Dhokra: The Traditional Art of Metal Casting’, “if the artisan Mohenjo-Daro who cast the famous bronze figurine of a dancing girl around 4,500 years old were to visit central and eastern India today, he would undoubtedly feel at home. In the Dhokra metal casting process, he will recognize the lost wax technique.” this unbroken tradition, coupled with the intrinsic rigor and vitality of the art form, which makes Dhokra a coveted collector’s item in India and abroad for connoisseurs, scholars and laypersons.
Today, Dhokra art is a major attraction in Bastar. As the artisans are mostly from the Ghadawa community, it is also known as Ghadawa art. The name Ghadwa is derived from the word “Ghalna” which means to melt, and as these people prepare the handicrafts by melting the metal using a lost wax technique, they are given the name “Ghadwa” which means the act of shaping and creating. . In some regions, artisans are also called “Ghasia”, “Khaser”, “Mangan” and “Vishwakarma”.
The legendary Dhokra shilp guru, Jaidev Bhagel, describes the origin of Dhokra craftsmanship as follows: An ancient ‘Adivasi’ hunter, unable to find anything nearby, wandered far into the densely forested area. In the deep forest, it was arid and dry. Exhausted, he fell asleep. A forest fire woke him up and on his way back he spotted a shiny piece of metal in a shape as if it had been cast from the stone above. On subsequent visits and sightings, the mystery was solved. An insect had hollowed out a stone (or perhaps used a stone with a hole in it) and made a wax hive out of it to house the inside and the hollow of the stone. With the forest fire, the metal ore inside the stone melted and fell; as it solidified, it dulled the imprint of the wax hive. This is how the work of Bastar Dhokra was born.
The mold making process is as old as craftsmanship. All the decoration is done on the dyes with wax cords. Wax is the appropriate medium for this craft due to its unique softness and malleability. It can be drawn into wires of required diameters and can be molded into desired shapes. People there worship the sun, moon, fields, mountain, jungle, etc., which are an important part of their designs and patterns. They make idols of deities and puja paraphernalia like bells, oil lamps, incense holders, etc. Craftsmanship has its very foundation rooted in the religious beliefs and practices of the people.
This ancient tradition received a boost in the 1960s when Bangla refugees from the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were resettled in the Dandakaranya region. The administrators of the ICS and IAS saw this craft as a source of income – not only for the tribals, but also for the settlers. This is how the craft found a “market”, and the state emporia encouraged journalists and media professionals to visit the Bastar, document the tradition and write about it. Also thanks to organizations such as the Crafts Corporation of India, artists like Jaidev Baghel, a bell metal craftsman from Kondagaon, have gained international popularity due to their participation in festivals and various performances. This has led private sector exporters to invest in the production and marketing of handicrafts.
Now let’s come to the production method. The raw materials include black earth (chikti mitti), a soil of volcanic origin which contains clay; and rice husk (bhoosa) which is mixed with soil to hold it together, as clay tends to break easily when dry. It also makes the mold porous and prevents cracking of the mold when baking. The next ingredient is riparian soil (rui mitti). It is the soft earth obtained from the bed of rivers, easy to shape, mold and file. The red earth is mixed with cow dung (gobar) because it allows the wax to melt out of the plaster and not stick to the ground. But the critical element is the red soil (lal mitti) which is formed by the houses of ants in the ground. The soil is picked up as it is. Dhokra also involves the use of bean leaves (sem patta) which is chosen because of its high water content. Finally, there is beeswax (madhumakkhi ka mome) which is extracted directly from hives. Nowadays, paraffin wax (mombatti ka mome) is also used, although it must be mixed with damar (coal tar) and agarbatti dhoop to keep it from cracking.
The castings are made of bell metal – a mixture of two alloys, brass and bronze. Brass adds shine to the surface while bronze adds glitter. Brass being more viscous does not flow easily in castings; bronze being heavy and less viscous helps the molten mixture flow easily and through narrow channels. Last but not least, there is the firewood (jalawan) obtained from the forest and the charcoal (koyla) which is used to prepare the mixture for the cover layer on the model.
Bastar’s metallic images are unrivaled not only for casting technique, but also for their earthly expression of life and celebration. The abundance of nature and people, as well as cultural traditions, together form the unique inherent core fabric of Bastar’s tribal heritage. The GI is owned by the Chhattisgarh Hastshilp Vikas Parishad who is also engaged in the promotion, production and trade links of the product.
Opinions expressed are personal