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Dhokra or Dokra is an ancient metal craft that utilizes the cire perdue or lost wax metal casting technique. It is one of the oldest and finest of our traditional crafts, one of the earliest known examples of which is the iconic Dancing Girl from the Mohenjo-Daro ruins. This lost wax technique has been described in detail in medieval texts such as the Manasara Shilpa Shastra, the Agnipurana and Matsyapurana. 

In this process, very broadly, wax is first formed into an object, enveloped in a clay mould, heated and then drained out to make way for molten brass. Once the metal cools, it is broken away from the clay and polished. Thus, a simple yet elegant work of art emerges. 

Dhokra or Dokra is an ancient metal craft that utilizes the cire perdue or lost wax metal casting technique. It is one of the oldest and finest of our traditional crafts, one of the earliest known examples of which is the iconic Dancing Girl from the Mohenjo-Daro ruins. This lost wax technique has been described in detail in medieval texts such as the Manasara Shilpa Shastra, the Agnipurana and Matsyapurana. 

In this process, very broadly, wax is first formed into an object, enveloped in a clay mould, heated and then drained out to make way for molten brass. Once the metal cools, it is broken away from the clay and polished. Thus, a simple yet elegant work of art emerges. 

For many centuries, the craft was associated with semi-tribal migratory artisans called Dhokras in the metal rich region of Central India. The original home was probably Bastar in Chhattisgarh from where it is believed to have spread to other areas spanning the modern regions of Jharkhand, Odisha, parts of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. The Dhokra families who migrated to the plains of Bengal, finally settled around centres such as Bankura, Bardhaman, Purulia and Medinipur, with the main concentration today being in Bikna, Bankura and Dariapur, Bardhaman. Though all Dhokras are ethnically related, they are variously classified as scheduled castes, tribes or other backward classes. 

In West Bengal, the artisan communities associated with the craft identified themselves variously as D(h)okra Kamars, Malhars/Malars/ Mals and Dhamars, with varying social statuses and with appellations often varying from region to region, such as Karmakars, Dheppo and Shyakhra (a gold or silversmith). Artisans from Purulia and a few areas in North Bankura and Medinipur claim to be Muslim while the South Bankura and Bardhaman artisans profess to be Hindu. 

Although these dhokra artisans are now settled in specific areas for many generations, in the days of yore, they would move from village to village, in search of work, carrying their simple tools with them. Other materials or structures could be procured or made on-site.They would repair old and broken brass utensils, or craft small images of deities like Lakshmi, her mount, the owl, a variety of decorative caskets, measuring bowls, small animal figures and other products. For this, the householder would have to supply broken brass utensils and miscellaneous brass scrap. However, the work of these craftsmen was always marginal to the domestic village economy.  The crafts that they made would last for generations and thus once they had fulfilled the needs of a village or locality, they would need to move on. Most groups specialized in certain kinds of products, depending on the client they served. In tribal areas the demand for brass anklets, dancing bells and jewelry was high. Hindu villagers bought images of deities, which had no market in Muslim villages. Interestingly, their technology to this day, continues to be a throwback to their nomadic times. 

The term Dokra though, is derogatory and was used for those who were socially low. Whether this was a reflection of their status in society (the migrant artisans were generally looked down upon by the villagers and that they spoke a tongue substantially different from Bengali, did not help) or a variant of the word Dhokra itself, is uncertain. This is probably why there was a reluctance by artisans to be associated with the term dokra. 

Today, Bikna in Bankura and Dariapur in Bardhaman are the main hubs for the craft in West Bengal, that have received government support. The Bikna artisans had originally settled in a small suburb called Rampur, from where they were later shifted to Bikna in 1970 by the government. There are about 65 artisan families settled in Bikna today. According to Dhiren Karmakar, one of the oldest master artisans in Bikna, their forefathers were nomads who came from Chhota Nagpur. The Dariapur artisans (variously known as Malar/Mal/Malhar craftsmen) probably immigrated here during the second world war from other parts of Bardhaman, before which they were in Odisha. This group of Malhar claim not to have made images at all in the past, and insist they learned to make their animal, human and votive figures in development workshops from members of other groups.

In their new settlements, the artisans would wander from village to village selling their traditional wares (much of which is no longer made) during the day and would return home late in the evening. 
The products of both Bikna and Dariapur are mostly images of deities, and other votive figures, animal and bird figures and other ornate art objects. 

Artisans from other parts of the state focus more on simpler forms like measuring bowls, in addition to bangles, ankle bells (usually for tribal women) and lamps. Owing to the dearth of brass, the Purulia artisans often use aluminum.
In the early sixties (Dariapur-1962 and Rampur-1965), industrial co-operative societies were set up at both centres. This gave the artisans, who were now officially recognized as Karmakars, some organizational strength. This brought them into the limelight and helped them come in contact with organized markets, with their products being treated as conspicuous consumables by the urban and sophisticated world. The Dariapur and Bikna (Rampur) artisans also began to cater to specific orders of customers and reproduce them with finer skills improved upon by training at the Regional Design Centre at Calcutta (Kolkata). Their craft which had primarily comprised objects of ritual and utilitarian significance, gradually evolved into decorative craft, as a result of the interest it evoked among the city people.  Two master artisans from Dariapur, Sambhu Karmakar and Baikuntha Karmakar, were the first to receive national awards in 1966.

In spite of this, the artisans however were still struggling. The newly relocated Bikna artisans found their living and working conditions harsh and the middlemen, exploitative. Many left the craft while many others migrated, all in search of a better livelihood.  

It was only in 2014, when the West Bengal Government’s Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles, in association with UNESCO, developed a Rural Craft Hub at Bikna, that their fortunes began to turn.

The Lost Wax Technique in West Bengal
Using rather coarse clay, a mix of plastic clay (entel mati) from fields and the chaff from paddy or sometimes, sand and kneaded together, the artisan sculpts the core - an approximation of the final object he desires to make. (The clay and sand mix would be more difficult to remove after casting and is used for smaller objects.) This is the core or “thensa” which is the inner support of the object and becomes the hollow inside the object, once it is cast. The artist intrinsically imparts to it the keen sense of proportion and balance that comes naturally to him.  For larger objects, multiple cores are created, which are then joined together after the core dries or soldered together after the casting stage. 

The core is dried in the sun and its surface is filed until it is smooth. Then a finishing layer from a smooth paste of finely sifted sandy clay is applied to the core and dried. This is the basic core. Additional details like ears and tails for animal figures or other decorative details are added at a later stage, in resin.

The leaves of the ‘sheem’ are sometimes rubbed on the dry core, the juice from the leaves acting  as a separator between the core and resin strands which will be placed. This helps in cleaner casting of the piece. The Dariapur craftsmen have learnt this technique from the Bastar craftsmen. 

Meanwhile, the artisan has prepared wax by melting dhuno (resin from the sal tree) and adding to it, mustard oil. Normally the proportion of brass to dhuna is 12:1 by weight. Some artisans also mix tar which sadly degrades the quality. The mixture is thoroughly stirred, boiled and sieved through a cloth, into a pot full of water. Upon pouring this liquid into the water, it gradually solidifies into malleable “wax”. From this the artisan creates thick rolls of resin with his hands. 

These are then made into narrower strips by heating and lengthening these rolls.  When the roll is thin enough, it is rolled back onto itself and stretched and flattened. The process is repeated many times over until the desired width and thickness is achieved, depending on the end product. 

To use for the finer decoration, the artisan extrudes wax strings, as thin as 1/16 of an inch, pushing a mixture of beeswax, that has been boiled with candlewax and resin in specific proportions, strained and cooled in water until it solidifies, and then softened and kneaded with mustard oil, through a perforated manual press.  

The artisan dexterously winds these resin tapes in intricate patterns around the core and follows it up with decorative work using wax strings of different thicknesses, as required. This is the wax replica of the final product. It is here that his creativity and mastery of the craft comes to the fore as he manipulates the wax tape, while visualizing the final outcome. Ears, tails and other decorative extensions are now joined. 

The artisan then provides for an inlet for the molten metal by attaching a slim roll of resin (referred to as a channel) to the highest point of the model. He then covers the wax model with a thin layer of finely sifted clay, diluted with cowdung water and strained. All the fine details of the resin model, the exact shape, size and motifs are now impressed upon clay. 

Once this dries, he adds another layer of coarser clay (entel mati mixed with sand in the ration 1:3), taking care to keep the wax/resin channel uncovered. The thickness of the surface clay is generally half-inch, sufficient to withstand firing and to retain molten metal without damage. Sometimes he uses wire to reinforce the structure. He then joins a clay funnel, enclosing the wax/resin inlet, to this final mould.  This is either sun-dried or lightly fired. 

There are two methods that may be employed for casting. The Bikna and Dariapur artisans have set up their own furnaces outside their homes. At Bikna, there are about 10 fixed furnaces today, shared among the artisans. Dariapur uses a crude furnace in an open space using loose bricks. 

The more traditional method, which the Dariapur artisans use, and which the Bikna community use for smaller 5-6 inch objects, involves placing the metal bits inside the funnel or crucible (chonga). A small opening near the top of the funnel where it joins the rest of the mould is made to allow the melted wax or resin to escape. The open crucible is then covered with a thicker layer of clay, thus becoming a part of the initial mould itself. The extended mould is sun-dried and then carefully lowered into the furnace, with the brass-filled section at the bottom. The resin and wax first melt and escape out of the opening. A greenish flame ensures that the metal is molten to an optimum point (at about 1100 degrees Celsius). The molten metal is stirred through the opening with a rod, the object being held with long tongs.  The mould is then taken out of the furnace, any leakages on its surface quickly plastered to prevent wastage of the metal, and turned slowly upside down so that the crucible filled with molten brass is on top. This allows the molten metal to flow in to occupy the place of the lost-wax space. To melt 1 quintal of brass, the furnace needs to be lit four times in a day, consuming 75 kgs of coal all day. 

In the second method, which is used by the Bikna artisans to create larger objects, the mould with the funnel facing downwards is carefully heated in a furnace, so that the wax melts. The artisans control the heat by manipulating the quantity of fuel fed. If the mould heats up too quickly, it will crack. The brass bits are melted in a separate clay container in a second furnace. After the red-hot mould is removed from the furnace, and any leakages on its surface swiftly sealed, molten brass is carefully poured into the funnel. It flows down the channel to fill the space left by the melted wax. 
In both methods, the mould is carefully placed upright against the wall and allowed to stand for 15-20 minutes. It is then cooled with water and the clay carefully broken with chisels and its inner core removed with pokers. The excess clay is then removed using wire brushes. Traditionally, there would be no attempt to remove the surface roughness which was intrinsic to the art, though excess deposits of metal would be chiseled out. 

Sadly, for the last few decades however, machine polishing the dhokra product and then painting it with a mix of gold paint and anti-tarnishing lacquer has become the trend, rendering it shiny and attractive to the new souvenir collector. 

Future of the Craft
A large number of the beautiful metal objects which were formerly made by the dhokras have virtually disappeared. It is the opinion of experts that the deities and animals now made, either under government patronage or independently or driven by the demands of the “cheap souvenir” market, lack the quality and craftsmanship of the older work. This was a result of changing social values, the  loss of traditional rural patronage for their craft, the fact that they are sedentary and no longer move around freely to source their raw materials cheaply, the astronomical prices of metal in the market and the traditional supply of metal scrap from old household utensils (replaced by aluminium or stainless steel or plastic in most homes) no longer in existence. The artisans began to counter the low prices they received by compromising on craftsmanship and quality of the raw materials. Given the right price though, the older masters are still able to craft a masterpiece.

About 20 years ago, agencies like the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development had reached out to the Dhokra communities in Bikna and Dariapur and had introduced technological improvements, including a smoke free pucca community furnaces, changing the composition of the alloy and other useful interventions. 

More recently, social enterprises like banglanatak dot com in collaboration with the government, have intervened, providing skill building training and other marketing opportunities which have given a boost to the artisans’ morale. Links with craft businesses like Biswa Bangla Corporation, online marketing and direct participation in fairs and festivals have all provided a much needed boost. Some artisans have also been showcased abroad. 

These steps have resulted in an increase in the profitability of the craft which in turn has stemmed the exodus of the younger generation from their traditional craft and home.  Artisans have also expanded their range of products, having added newer forms and motifs. The artisans no longer need to take loans from money lenders. They have come a long way from their prior nomadic, impoverished existence. To top it all, the Bengal Dokra has also recently earned the prestigious Geographical Indication tag.