The dancing girl from Mohenjo-daro (c. 2300 - 1750 BCE) is not just the most famous piece of art from the Harappan Civilisation, it is also one of the finest examples of metal art from that period. But did you know that this world-famous figurine is also the oldest example of a unique metal casting tradition called Dhokra that survives to this day in parts of India?
Named after a nomadic tribe called ‘Dhokra Damar’, the art of Dhokra was originally found in the region from Bankura to Dariapur in Bengal, and across the metal-rich regions of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. Today, it is practiced in the tribal belt across present-day Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
This belt in the heart of India is also home to some of the oldest tribes in India, like the Gonds and the Bhils, who many believe are the earliest inhabitants of the subcontinent. This is why some of the symbolism and styles of Dhokra art hark back to an ancient past.
What is Dhokra?
Dhokra is a metal casted art that uses the ancient lost-wax casting technique. This art is said to be the first of its kind to use a non-ferrous metal like copper and its alloys – brass (a mix of zinc and copper) or bronze (tin and copper) which do not contain iron. Going back to the Age of Metallurgy, the extracting of metal from minerals, about 4,000 years ago, it uses the process of annealing, where a metal is heated to very high temperatures and allowed to cool slowly, while it takes the shape of an artifact.
Prabhas Sen, author of the book Crafts of West Bengal (1994), writes that the Dhokra makers who inherited this craft travelled from village to village in the South-Western districts of Bengal, repairing old and broken utensils and selling small Dhokra idols of Lakshmi and her mount the owl, Lakshmi Narayan and Radha Krishna, in a primitive folk style in exchange for food grains. These idols were considered auspicious. They were believed to bring prosperity and happiness when installed in household shrines, especially for newly married couples.
Although the basic technique is the same, there are regional variations in Dhokra depending on the availability of materials. The Dhokra artistes first make a clay model out of wax, which is then replaced with molten metal, either brass or bronze, through a lost-wax metal cast.
The casting is done using two kinds of processes – the traditional, hollow-casting method and solid casting. Solid casting is predominant in Telangana, whereas hollow casting is used in Central and Eastern India.
Process of making Dhokra
Initially, a core model of clay is made out of riverbed clay or local soil mixed with coal dust and rice husk. A mixture of beehive melted wax, melted tar and resin from local trees like the Dammar gum tree (Damara Orientallis) is fashioned into discs, this wax mixture is then made into strings by hand. Nowadays, a metal and wooden press is used to make wax strings, although artisans say these break easily and hence prefer traditional methods. Originally, only beeswax was used for this process. Today, paraffin wax or candle wax is easily available.
The clay model is decorated with these wax strings to make fine details and decorations by hand on the Dhokra piece. In the hollow-casting method, this model is covered in layers of soil, sand, and jute and then sundried.
The solid-casting method uses a solid wax core instead of a clay core, thus making a clay or wax funnel with an opening on top. Through the top, scrap metal pieces of brass/bronze are inserted, which melt into the mould through a firing process, traditionally known as annealing. Furnaces are prepared by heating wood and coal pieces.
After cooling, the cast is then carefully removed and demouled to obtain the metal casted Dhokra piece. Larger pieces of Dhokra require extensive use of metal and wax, and these are made by experienced craftsmen.
Symbolism of Dhokra
With its roots in ancient civilisations, Dhokra represents a primitive lifestyle and the beliefs of people, going back to the age of hunting. This is why figures of elephants, owls, horses and tortoises are commonly seen in Dhokra art. The elephant symbolises wisdom and masculinity; the horse motion; owl prosperity and death; and the tortoise femininity. In Hindu mythology, these iconic symbols also have stories behind them. The world is imagined to rest on four elephants, standing on the shell of a tortoise. The tortoise, considered as an avatar of Lord Vishnu, carries the world on his back, holding up the earth and the sea.
Folk deities and Hindu gods and goddesses are widely prevalent themes in Dhokra art. Traditionally, along with the Hindu deities of Lakshmi, Dhokra artists also made caskets, ritual lamps and measuring bowls in different sizes.
Different Styles of Dhokra
The ancient art of Dhokra, once spread across different parts of India, is now restricted to a few clusters in different locations. These clusters demonstrate unique styles of the Dhokra as suited to their local communities.
Bikna village, a few kilometers north of Bankura in West is a thriving Dhokra hub. The beautifully wall-painted houses in the village demonstrate the community’s inherent artistic bent and artisan's imagination. The artisans make terracotta figures and intricate Dhokra metal castings which are used as offerings to an open-air altar. The figurines change according to the major festivals and seasons celebrated.
The Dhokra Damar tribes were the earliest metalsmiths from West Bengal, they used the ancient technique of lost wax casting, and gave the craft of Dhokra its name. Most of the Bankura Dhokra makers are also described as 'Mal' or 'Malars' or more recently as ‘Karmakars’.
Researcher Ruth Reeves refers to the Bankura Dhokra community as 'Kainkuya Mal', where the word ‘Kainkuya’ possibly comes from the association with the traditional metal casted measuring vessels known as 'kunke' in Bengali.
The Bankura horse is the most famous piece of Dhokra from West Bengal. It is said that the potters of Panchmura, 26 km from Bishnupur in Bankura, started making the Bankura horses in terracotta. The horse started being worshipped by the villagers as a local god, a representation of the Sun god. Originally made as giant terracotta figures, they are also now made with the Dhokra technique, in brass, featuring elegant long ears and a symmetrical body with elaborate decoration.
Traditionally used in village rituals as a sacrifice for fulfillment of wishes, the Bankura horse in terracotta and Dhokra is now sold as decorative art pieces. Always made in pairs and sold in pairs, Bankura horse figurines are available in various sizes.
Other popular figurines among Dhokra artisans of Bikna village of Bankura are of men and women performing daily chores, musicians, dancers, animals and birds like peacocks and owls, and temple deities.
The Dhokra artisans of Kandhamal district in Odisha make idols of their deity, Lord Jagannatha. The statuette is embellished with separate strings of wax made into decorative embellishments of crown and jewellery, and even his prominent nose ring.
Mahuri is a special musical instrument, and it is played at celebrations across the state as it is considered auspicious. It is made of a wooden tube with a double-beating reed with seven fingering holes. It resembles a flute with a distinctive feature of a talpatri on the top. This is attached to a beautiful Dhokra piece, whose end opens out like that of a trumpet.
Clusters of Dhokra artisans in Dhenkanal in Odisha also started making deities of Goddesses Durga and Saraswati, and Lords Ganesha and Shiva, due to popular demand. Traditionally, they also made soap holders, glasses and symbolic animals associated with goddesses like the tortoise. Jewellery anklets, musical anklets (ghungroos) and statues of the Dongria Kondha tribe of Odisha are also depicted in their art.
Bastar is a district in South Chhattisgarh famous for Dhokra brass or bell metal items made by the Ghadwa tribe. According to a folk story of the Ghadwas, the ruler of Bastar called ‘Bhan Chand’ was once presented a Dhokra necklace by a craftsman as a gift for his wife and this brought the ruler’s attention to this unique craft. To honour the craftsman, he conferred the title ’Ghadwa’ on him, possibly derived from the word ‘ghalna’, meaning ‘to melt and work with wax’. It is said that Dhokra has been practiced here. The Dhokra bull is one of Bastar’s famous artefacts, along with figurines of tribal people and Hindu gods.
The Malhore or Malhar tribes of Pundi village in Jharkhand make Dhokra containers with detailed animal and bird motifs on them. Along with religious idols of Ganesha and Durga, miniature figurines, small vessels and tiny jewellery objects with elaborate details are crafted here. Contemporary key chains and votive figures are in demand too.
Along with utilitarian objects and gods and goddesses, figures of local people, and deities riding elephants, horses are depicted by Dhokra artisans across districts.
How Dhokra Is Being Revived
Attempts have been made by non-profit organisations, different state governments and individual firms to promote Dhokra art nationally and internationally. Dhokra products, like animal figurines, caskets, bowls and lamps are in great demand in local and foreign markets due to their primitive simplicity, elegant and enchanting folk forms.
The digital platform, Peepul Tree, has been working closely with various artisan clusters, from far corners of India, to keep the legacy of many such crafts alive. At Peepul Tree you can find some of the most precious and symbolic forms of the Dhokra pieces like the Owl, the Bankura Horse, Lord Ganesha, tribal figurines and exceptional jewellery and more, made by traditional artisans, Somnath Karmakar and his family in Bankura.
Dhokra art is used in innovative ways to make contemporary artefacts, and minimalist jewellery today. Along with ritualistic idols, items like ashtrays, doorknobs and handles, human and animal figures, kitchenware and even statuettes of famous personalities are popular today. Dhokra being unique with rustic simplicity, enchanting patterns and folk motifs, formed by distinctive lines and styles, is being innovated in some places with contemporary styles that combine the metal Dhokra with ceramic/pottery as embellishments for products like small pots, hangers and trinket trays. You can explore the wide range of these contemporary Dhokra products at Peepul Tree.
In West Bengal, The National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) funded a project in the Bengal Engineering College to develop a fuel-efficient, permanent furnace for Dhokra artisans. By the year 2000, a community furnace was launched in Bankura along with other changes in tools and improved technology. This has spared the Dhokra artisans of Bankura from long hours in sweltering heat in front of the open, traditional furnaces.
Although attempts are being made to revive the craft today, Dhokra artisans are still struggling to keep their craft alive. The biggest threat is poverty. The lack of business guidance and techniques to promote their products in markets and the disinclination among youngsters from learning this traditional craft has held it back.