Dhokra craft uses lost-wax technique of metal casting which has been practiced among Dhokra Damar tribe since over 4000 years. Lot of people now know it as bell metal craft. It so happened that when British came across this craft, they found technique very similar to bells manufacturing in England. And since they had difficulty in pronouncing the name Dhokra, they preferred to use Bell Metal to identify Dhokra products. Even local tradesman started selling it as bell metal. Hence, both names became synonymous with each other despite being quite different.
Dhokra Damar tribe is believed to be original metalsmiths of West Bengal. Dhokra artefacts can be traced back as early as Mohenjo-daro. The craft has been historically associated with the ‘tribal’ culture of India. Today this art is practiced by different tribes across India especially in parts of West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Though all the tribes are ethnically related, each of these tribes has a distinctive style derived from their traditions and culture.
Dhokra is more than metal casting technique, it is an art of making the moulds to perfection. The mould is made by hand, therefore each and every Dhokra piece is unique. This art of making moulds is handed down from generation to generation. Both men and women of the family practice this craft. Hence, the children learn this craft though imitation when helping the elders.
The process of casting metal is not only time consuming but also requires meticulous attention. The craftsman begins with clay core (hollow moulding) or wax core (solid moulding). The mould is made by using bee’s wax and asphalt (called “daamar” in local language). The craftsmen get the bee wax from the forest and daamar from road construction agencies. After the mould is ready, it is coated with thin layer of fine wet clay (generally obtained from the nearest pond). A small outlet is maintained for metal to flow in the mould. This is left to dry in natural weather. Too much heat can melt the wax before the clay is dried. This can further distort the mould. Once the clay has dried, a thick coat of cow dung mixed with husk and mud is added over the clay, maintaining the outlet for metal.
Drain ducts are left for the wax, which melts away and is lost (hence lost wax technique) when the clay is cooked.Then molten metal is poured into the outlet which takes the cavity made by the molten wax.Once the clay mould cools, it is broken and the artefact is taken out for cleaning and polishing.
Dhokra art may be scattered across India but the number of artisans practicing this craft is reducing with time. In addition, slowing demand of traditional Dhokra items is also making it less lucrative for craftsmen to carry forward the tradition. This is putting age old Dhokra craft at risk.
Earlier craftsmen used to create only ritualistic items, like statues of Gods and Goddesses. But with changing times their canvas is also changing. Now artisans are trying to capture inspiration from everyday life to the contemporary / modern subjects. No matter what the form is, whether the figurines of Madia & Madin (term used for male and female in Maria tribe of Bastar) or the statue of lovers - Jhitku Mitki, each one is handcrafted with detail and attention.