The bell metal casting technique is used to make a variety of objects ranging from household items to accessories. It is used to craft figures of elephants, horses, cattle and peacocks, utensils and jewelry. The popular objects made using Dhokra are:
Phorla (wrist ornament), Bisto (wrist ornament worn by females of Gond tribe), Kakana (bangles), Mudda (for males - worn in marriage), Hasli (necklace), Mudda (toe ring), Kapdonda (used to light cigarettes) and Morchimni (a peacock shaped lamp).
In Dhokra or lost-wax casting, wax strings are coiled to create beautiful patterns. The natural beeswax retains its malleability even after cooling down, making it an excellent choice to create coiled shapes and miniature patterns. Spiral, cross - hatched or smoothed into a flat surface, the texture of these wax threads will determine the final appearance of the metal product.
The cattle - bell is believed to be one of the oldest objects made using this technique. It is worshiped as god by some of the Gonds as the sweet sound of the bell is symbolic of cattle rearing which signifies prosperity.
The 'Dhokra Shilpis' (dhokra craftsmen) often work with brass (copper + zinc) or bronze (copper + tin). If the tin content is high, the alloy is called bell metal. Unlike the craft of earthen pottery, where traditionally the wheel turning is reserved for men, there are no restrictions in Dhokra work and can be practiced by either men or women. Children learn the craft through imitation and instruction.
Myths & Legends
Metal Casting is one of the most widely used sculpting techniques and has been prevalent since ancient times. The method, in which a mould is created by carving a hollow in stone has strong hints of a primitive era, when modern methods had not been invented.
The famous 'dancing girl' of Harappa, dating back 5000 years, is the earliest known specimen of lost - wax casting. This technique is believed to have originated in the 'Indus Valley Civilization' around 3500 BC. Two copper figures made with the Dhokra technique were excavated from Lothal an ancient Harappan site in Gujarat.
Wax - cast artifacts made in Indo - Greek style and a figurine of young Harpocrates (the god of silence) from 1st century BC, were excavated from the site of 'Taxila'. The iconic bronze statue of Lord 'Nataraja' (8 - 15th century A.D.) and the 3,000 year old bronze figure of 'Mother Goddess' discovered at 'Adichanallur', Tamil Nadu, were both created using the lost wax process.
Dhokra has been extensively used in creating temple idols, oil lamps, utensils, jewelry, and large weapons. In the modern day, it finds its place in religious ceremonies and traditions. In many communities as a religious custom, daughters are gifted with intricately crafted 'Diyas' (lamps) as part of the wedding ritual.
From 750 B.C to 1100 B.C the craft flourished in different regions of India namely Rajasthan, Gujarat, Raipur, Sarnath, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. During the period between 1500 B.C and 1850 B.C, the craft retained its dominance in south India. The craft is still passionately followed by the tribal folk of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh in central India, Orissa, Bihar in west India and Tamil Nadu (Swamimalai), Kerala (Munnar) in south India. Some of the regions in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh have historic connections with the craft. A number of tribal artisans have traditionally been involved in practicing the craft. Tribes namely the 'Malar' from 'Sarguja', 'Jhara' from 'Raigadh', 'Ghadwa' from 'Bastar', 'Swarnakar' from 'Tikamgarh' and 'Bharewa' from 'Betul' have all been instrumental in preserving the craft and keeping its beauty intact. The basic method of casting done in 'Sarguja', 'Tikamgarh', 'Bastar' and 'Betul' is almost similar with slight differences occurring due to the difference in available raw materials as well as the difference in environment.
When the central state of Madhya Pradesh divided into the current states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the vast majority of land inhabited by the Dhokra craftsmen went over to Chhatisgarh. It was then that 'Madhya Pradesh Hastshilp Vikas Nigam' started a Dhokra facility in Betul, to continue the craft in the state. Today, many craftsmen learn and practice this tribal art form at the facility, to create traditional objects as well as commercial artifacts for the larger market.
The designs used in Dhokra craft are a mix of realistic forms and figures and abstract aesthetic expressions of spirituality of the local people. Tribal myths, magic and designs inspired by nature are given form through this art.
Surface ornamentation is an important aspect of these cast metal products and the craftsmen still use old motifs which have become more refined with time. Most of these motifs are circular or linear in shape and the ornamentation is done on the wax structure. The various motifs made using the wax threads are 'Chakri' (spirals), ropes, waves and zigzags. While the motifs are few, the craftsmen use different combinations of motifs to derive a wide variety of new patterns that add richness to the designs.
One of the biggest challenges of the craft is the rising price of raw material. With the raw material being steeply priced, the craftsmen try to counter it by mixing cheaper alternatives and that adversely affects the quality of the finished product.
Also, various natural impurities like hay, dust particles etc. get mixed with the wax creating pinhole scars and uneven surfaces after the metal casting is finished.