Swamimalai, Kumbakonam, Tamil Na...
Lost wax casting is used to sculpt various kinds of metals spanning uses such as ornaments, idols and weaponry. It was traditionally used to produce canons and other war weapons as well as farming tools, cattle bells and bullock carts.
In present times, the craft is also used to make ornaments and show – pieces or intricate toys. Utilities used for worship in temples and the elaborate idols of gods and goddesses are also sculpted using lost wax casting. They also make small and elaborate oil – wick lamps with intricate traditional designs. The Government too commissions metal sculptures for various Architectural and Interiors projects.
In this craft, the raw materials partly play the role of the tools. The wax greatly aids in bringing about an intricacy in the design, which is otherwise difficult to create in basic moulds. Wax is also a very versatile material, which is easily available and can be re-used. The flexibility of this process explains itself in being able to create both small objects as well as large sculptures which are seen in several government buildings.
The designs portray the lives of the people and their surroundings. A lot can be learnt from the depictions, which also change according to the use of the object. There is a large antique appeal to the final product and it does not fail to attract connoisseurs of ancient artifacts.
A folklore from Madhya Pradesh speaks of how lost – wax casting was discovered. There were twelve brothers who to used help their father with farming. The youngest one, however, could not bring himself to be interested in farming. He used to sit under a tree when exasperated and play with wet clay. He slowly got engrossed in the interesting forms which came about. These later started developing cracks, and he applied gum to avoid these. It gave a very rugged finish to the form. To combat this, he started applying another layer of clay. When this too did not help he moved on to filling it with molten metal. It is said in this process of rectifying and polishing the form, he discovered the method of lost – wax casting.
The ‘dancing girl’ of Harappa is the earliest known example of metal-wax casting. It was born in the Indus Valley Civilization at around 3500 BC. Two copper figures were also found in Lothal in Gujarat, an ancient Harappan site. Wax casted artifacts of the Indo-Greek style, a juvenile figure of Harpocrates from 1st century BC, was excavated at Taxila. The bronze icon of Lord Nataraja (8 – 15th century A.D.) and the 3,000 year old bronze figure of Mother Goddess discovered at Adichanallur, Tamilnadu, South India; both were cast by the lost wax process. The method was extensively used in creating temple idols, lamps, utensils, jewelry and also large weaponry. The craft has percolated into ceremonies and traditions. Many communities have a custom of gifting finely molded metal Dias (lamps) to their daughters for their weddings.
This process flourished in different regions of India namely Rajasthan, Gujarat, Raipur, Sarnath, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu from 750 – 1100 AD, and remained prevalent in south India between 1500 – 1850 AD. This craft is still ardently followed in the tribal and folk regions of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in central India, Orissa and Bihar in the west and Tamil Nadu (Swamimalai) and Kerala (Munnar) in the south to create beautifully intricate objects of decoration and utility.
The metal craft in Madhya Pradesh developed and has been practiced for over three to four centuries. The blacksmiths used to make weaponry like cannons, swords, shields and spears for the royal army, as well as tools, carts and cattle bells for the farmers. Of the two main clusters, the manner it was made in Tikamgarh varied a little. Here the objects were made on moulds and wax threads were used for decoration. Whereas in the other parts, the entire object was shaped out of wound strips of wax.
Intricate details for the smallest of objects can be done in lost-wax casting. Therefore, the designs with fine patterns are made on wax. The inspirations for these patterns are derived from the elements of local architecture like the ‘jharokas’ and the ‘jaalis’, the birds and animals around them and abstract forms of surrounding fauna. These metal images, eloquent with peculiar indigenous socio – religious history, are considered auspicious. The impressions and the motifs created on the strips of wax are very simple, geometric and repetitive. The designs in the southern parts of India tend to be solid while the ones in the north are hollow. The method, however, remains the same.
Quick results and low prices for objects in demand is what is running the market. The awareness of handcrafted objects and their customized results is sparse. The cost of metal, which is the primary raw material of the craft, has also gone up. And the demand for heavy artifacts is decreasing. The buyers mainly consist of art collectors and temple authorities who buy these in the form of idols, lamps, bells etc.
The craft requires a lot of time and is labor intensive. It involves being subjected to large amounts of heat. These factors have led to the two adverse consequences. One is the number of cheaper imitations coming into the market. Since the crowd prefers the cheaper versions, most craftsmen no longer go through the original wax casting method. They instead make a permanent mould and cast similar artifacts out of the same. There are but one or two families following the entire process as it was. Many now get popular metal objects from Moradabad, and used them as moulds to create replications. Due to the heavy work involved and low returns, the younger generation are slowly stepping away from the work.
Metal – Brass is used, which is an alloy of Copper and Zinc. Since pure Copper is a soft metal and is not an effective material unless strengthened as an alloy.
Beeswax and Industrial wax – This is mixed with groundnut oil and binding resin to make a mixture called ‘rar’. The initial mould is crafted from this.
Oil – is rubbed onto the working platforms to avoid sticking.
Sand and clay – to make a cast over the wax form.
Cow dung cakes, coal and firewood – to heat the entire form for the wax to melt and also to heat the metal.
Kerosene – for the small burner, which is used to heat the tips of the tools.
Metal wires – as reinforcement for the clay model in bigger models.
Traditionally, beeswax used to be the raw material for manufacture of products in which lost-wax casting method was used. But the cheaper and quicker alternative of industrial wax is presently taking over. This is resulting in more wastage than natural wax, as some of the industrial wax gets burnt away during the process.
The tools required to execute the lost – wax technique are as following:
Dhatiya – a wooden bat used to beat the wax slabs.
Patla – A sturdy flat wooden surface, upon which the wax is worked.
Athali – wooden sculpting and molding tool.
Chisels, hammers – for making patterns and shapes with wax, breaking clay moulds and subsequently polishing the metal.
Pointed mace rolling pin – used to roll wax strips into thin threads.
Kerosene lamp – to heat the tips of the tools while working on the wax models.
Tongs and holders – To heat wax and pour molten metal.
Kiln – to melt the metal.
Press – A longitudinal metal slab with patterns in negative space marked on it. Wax strips are run through it, pressed together and they quickly rolls out as patterned strip.
Stamp tools – These are made by the craftsmen themselves for stamping on various patterns onto the mould.
Lost – wax casting, as the name goes, involves creating the form with wax as the transient mould. After it is covered with clay or sand and heated, the wax melts away leaving the designs behind on the sand/clay layer. Molten metal is poured in to occupy this ornate void and solidify into a beautiful piece of art. Sometimes, different parts of the object are cast separately and later welded or pieced together.
The Rar is heated and when it reaches a malleable state, it is used as the modeling material. In case of larger objects, a clay base is made, over which this wax mixture is coated and given the finer shapes.
The wax is melted and repeatedly heated over a period of two days and prepared. Available in the form of flat chunks, they are melted according to the amount needed. The wax is shaped into the desired form.
Sometimes, the entire form is made out of one piece and other times the limbs or other elements are made separately and fused to the main body. The ornamentation is made on wicks of rolled out wax and then added to the main form. Intricate patterns are made on wax using fine tools and stamps.
After the mould hardens, a thin layer of local red soil is applied so that it percolates into the finest of designs. A layer of fine sand is applied so that it percolates the thinnest of patterns. Then a clay based paste is applied over this. Another thick coat of mud mixed with cow dung is then applied externally over the form. This last coat involves application of clay and sand (bajari). Here, the sand act as strengthening agent and prevents the mould from breaking open when heated. These steps of coating the mould with different mixtures takes up to 7 days.
Sometimes, in case of bigger sculptures, metal wires are used as reinforcements. So that the clay does not crack open while heating. This is then kept in sun till it dries. The mould is then heated over burning firewood and is covered with cakes of cow dung. The wax melts and flows out through the hole left open while the clay cast was made. This wax is collected in a container filled with water.
Molten metal or brass is then poured directly into this cavity. This non – ferrous metal casting takes over 15 – 20 minutes to complete. After the metal solidifies, the external covering is broken using hammers. The clay is wiped off and this is then again dried in the sun. Electric polishers, chisels and other tools are used to add a finer finish to the piece. Acid treatments are given to obtain antique finishes.
List of craftsmen.