ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the tiny craft village of Ektal in Chhattisgarh, which continues India’s 4000-year-old tradition of crafting dhokra figurines using the lost wax technique
The lone taal (palm) tree rebels against the desolate landscape of Ektaal, a small village near Raigarh on the Chhattisgarh Orissa border. The heady aroma of Mahua trees in bloom permeates through the heat and dust. However, unlike other craft villages that resonate with the tinkle of chisels and implements, Ektaal greets us with stultifying silence… For nearly a century the Jharas of Ektaal have silently churned out dull gold dhokra figurines, a 4 millennia old art whose earliest and most well known example is the iconic Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro.
The craft takes its name from the Dhokra Damar tribe of West Bengal, distant relatives of the Gonds and Ghadwas of Central India. There was a time when Jharas, a sub-tribe of the Gonds, used to wander the vast tracts of the Chota Nagpur Plateau (present day Odisha, Jharkhand, Bengal, Chhattisgarh) exchanging their wares for food and grains. They lived under a blanket of stars and the shade of trees, hawking bracelets, anklets, earrings, waistbands, necklaces and idols of gods and goddesses, besides utilitarian pieces such as combs, lamps, bowls, betel boxes and cups. Around hundred years ago, some Jhara tribesmen settled in Ektaal village.
Chapter 68 of the ancient Sanskrit text Manasara Silpasastra entitled Maduchchhista vidhānam, or the ‘lost wax method’ elaborates on the casting of idols in wax. The process, known as ‘cire perdue’ in French is practiced across the globe and has more or less remained the same for thousands of years. A clay core is covered by a layer of beeswax, resin from the Damara orientalis tree and nut oil. The wax is shaped and carved in fine detail, covered with layers of clay, baked to drain the wax and the resultant cast is filled with molten metal to create the final object. However, the coiled thread technique is unique to the Bastar region, stemming perhaps from the local practice of winding grass around ropes that were woven into baskets.
The craftsman begins with a clay core. Then mome (beeswax) and sarson tel (mustard oil) are heated in a handiya (vessel). The paste is sieved in a chhanni to form threads of wax, which are wound on the contours of the core. A thick coat of chikni mitti or fine clay obtained from termite mounds is applied followed by two more coats of a mixture of gobar (cow dung), bhusa (hay) or paddy husk, black soil and red soil sourced from the river. Drain ducts are created for wax to melt away when the clay is baked. The vacuum between the core and clay layer is filled with molten metal, often brass scrap or bell metal, an alloy of copper and tin in a 3:1 ratio. The liquid metal should flow uniformly without forming gaps or bubbles and fills the mould, taking the same shape as the wax. This is allowed to cool and solidify. The outer layer of clay is then cracked open to reveal the final figure and the metal icon is given a final polish.
Today, the mud homes of nearly a hundred families in Ektaal serve as an open-air gallery. Every home is engaged in the craft. We watch beeswax being pressed into strips in buckets of water. Women wrap slender ribbons of beeswax over clay moulds. Adapting the lost wax technique to create metal art with painstaking detail, they make anything from traditional lamps to decorative hooks and animal curios in a day to complex figurines that takes months to finish.
The icons capture scenes of every day life as craftsmen draw inspiration from the immediate natural environment – birds, horses, elephants, deer, spring, rituals and village life in the ghotul, a tribal hut surrounded by earthen walls. The Mahua tree and the conceptual Tree of Life are common themes. Mythological icons dominate like Bhuda Deo, Karma Jhaar and Danteshwari Mata, cult goddess of the Gonds, often portrayed on an elaborate swing as Mata Jhula. No matter what the form, each item is intricately handcrafted – from totem poles to elephant howdahs and geometric patterned cups to jewellery bedecking busts of Maria-Muria tribesmen. The fine symmetry of Jhitku Mitki statuettes, lovers from tribal folklore, leaves us awestruck.
Over a dozen villagers in Ektaal are recipients of National Awards while 35 have received State awards. Often traveling abroad for workshops and seminars in reputed institutes and fairs, these artists still live in huts, wear ragged clothes and display certificates and honors with child-like innocence. Ram Lal Jhara showed us his 1988 National Award with a beaming smile. It is a ‘Pushtaini Kala,’ passed down from one generation to another. ‘Hum ko bhi nahi pata kitne saal se karte aa rahe hain (We also don’t know how long we’ve been doing it), he confides.
National Award winner Shankar Lal Jhara, who makes unusual metal chairs, displays a photo of his prize-winning winged horse. Satyanarayan Jhara, who learnt the craft as a 10-year-old and has been making dhokra pieces for 24 years, displays his stunning Badpari Mandir. Budhiyarin Bai crafted Chandri Mata ka Rath and received the National Award from Hast Shilp Vikas Board. She has showcased her craft at Surajkund, Bangalore, Shimla and other craft melas as she cradles her depiction of Lakshmi for us to admire.
Some dhokra artists hurriedly pull out scrapbooks of faded newspaper clips they cannot even read. Ironically, their mud houses serve as a canvas for government schemes and mottos in health and education. ‘Alu, Bhata, Karela, Chalbo Didi Padhela’ (Potato, Eggplant, Bitter gourd, Sister let’s go to school) or ‘Dayi Padhi, Dadda padhi, Tabhi Chhattisgarh Agey Badhi’ (Mother read, father read, only then can Chhattisgarh lead). Despite their humble roots, the craftsmen had traveled to Paris, Rome and London for fairs and exhibitions. And it was amazing to see how a remote, obscure village had left a stamp on the world map, literally in molten metal.
Getting there: Located in Pussore Tehsil of Raigarh District in Chhattisgarh, Ektal is 18km from the capital. Exit Raigarh from Jail Road, go past Akashvani and Doordarshan via the TV Tower Road and get on to Kanaktora Road. It’s a 30 min drive along the Kelo river to the craft village. Cross Bijankot from where Ektal is 2km away.
Stay: With many city hotels like ANS International, Shreshtha and Jindal Regency Raigarh is the ideal base to cover Ektal, which has no facilities.
Where to Buy: You can buy directly from artisans at Ektal. Turtles are available for Rs.450, spoons at Rs.150/piece, lanterns for Rs.1,800 and a set of 3 tall statues for Rs.8,000. Dhokra art can also be picked up at the Jhitku Mitki store in Raipur and Raigarh.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of a Cover Story ‘Handmade in India’ on indigenous crafts in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine.