The Dhokra Artisans of Bankura and Dariapur, West Bengal:
A Case Study and Knowledge Archive of Technological Change in Progress

By David Smith, Newport, UK Rajesh Kochhar, New Delhi, India

Introduction: The Ancient Craft of Dhokra

The ancient craft of dhokra (cire perdue, or lost wax) metal casting was once widespread throughout India, but is now restricted to a small number of groups of traditional artisans in widely dispersed locations. One significant nucleus of me craft exists among related groups of families in Bikna Village (Bankura) and nearby Dariapur, in West Bengal, India. These communities have been the subject of an action research project initiated and coordinated by the National Institute for Science, Technology and Development Studies NISTADS within the Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research CSIR. It involved replacing an ancient traditional but inefficient metal-foundry technique with another which is almost as ancient but more efficient. The impact of this apparently simple change has been both profound and rapid, not only on the dhokra practice itself, but also on the material prosperity, self-esteem and creative confidence of the artisans.

The name 'Dhokra' or 'Dokra' was formerly used to indicate a group of nomadic craftsmen, scattered over Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh in India, and is now generically applied to a variety of beautifully shaped and decorated brassware products created by the cire perdue or 'lost wax' process. The craft of lost-wax casting is an ancient one in India, and appears to have existed in an unbroken tradition from the earliest days of settled civilisation in the sub-continent. The traditional themes of these cast metal sculptures include images of Hindu Or 'tribal' gods and goddesses, bowls, figures of people or deities riding elephants, musicians, horse and rider figures, elephants, cattle, and other figures of people, animals, and birds.

The first detailed study of cire perdue work in the Bankura District was carried out in the early 1960s by Ruth Reeves (1962) This work has been the primary source for many subsequent reports and academic theses (see, for example, Krishnan,1976; Pal, 1978). However, there has never been a detailed audio-visual record of the craft, and this current report aims to fill this gap in the record. It documents a period during which the people of Bikna are adapting their traditional way of working to the demands and possibilities both of a new technology and a new commercial environment. It therefore provides a unique contemporary record of a historic living tradition undergoing rapid and fundamental change.

Although there is a small but increasing demand for dhokra work from urban Indian families, as well as in the tourist trade, the craft is threatened with extinction. Most of the remaining dhokra communities are extremely poor, and their economic condition has caused many families to leave the craft to find wage employment in local manufacturing centres or in metropolitan centres such as Kolkata (Calcutta).

According to Sen (1994): "Perhaps the poorest craft group of West Bengal, the Dhokras are the most interesting and creative. In recent years, under the pressure of all-embracing industrialisation and changing social values, they have been forced by the loss of their natural rural market to diversify their products and are now seeking, with the help of the government and some voluntary agencies, a market among urban sophisticates, as creators of decorative ware. These efforts have met with only limited success".

Sen attributes the roots of this failure to "... Greedy dealers in handicrafts [who] took advantage of the failure of the government and the voluntary organisations to provide adequate price protection for the producers".

However, as we shall show, the situation is far more complex than simply being a matter of economic exploitation.

The Cire Perdue Technique

The casting of finely detailed metal artefacts by means of the cire perdue, or lost wax, technique is almost as old as settled civilisation. The technique is simple to describe (but difficult to perfect). It involves six stages:

  • Core-making: A clay core is made, slightly smaller than the final intended size of the artefact. The core may be hardened by firing or sun-drying
  • Modelling: A detailed wax model is built up around the core, to the thickness of metal desired in the finished object
  • Moulding: The wax model is coated with a thin layer of very fine clay, which will form an impression of every detail of the model. When this layer is dry and hard, further layers of clay are added to the mould. One or more pouring channels are provided, through which molten metal can run to fill the mould
  • De-waxing: The mould is pre-heated to melt the wax, and the molten wax is poured out (it may be recovered for subsequent re-use). This leaves a cavity which has the exact size, shape and surface contours of the intended artefact
  • Casting: Molten metal is poured into the cavity and the mould left to cool
  • Finishing: The artefact is broken out of the mould. Traces of baked clay are removed and surface blemishes and defects repaired.

There are many refinements and variations, but the above outline applies to most of the traditional styles of cire perdue work still extant. The sophistication of the process varies considerably, with the most advanced techniques employed in South India and Bastar in Madhya Pradesh (See Postel and Cooper, 1999 pp 81-97). The casting process used in Bankura and in nearby Dariapur appears to be the least technologically developed of all.

The Origins of the Cire Perdue Craft in India

The earliest known examples of cire perdue work include the famous bronze 'dancing girl' found in Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley (Agrawal, 1971). Even at such an early stage, this finely observed bronze figure already shows the highly developed creativity and mastery of the production technique typical of cire perdue at its finest. Lost wax casting subsequently spread, whether by communication or parallel invention, to most civilisations. The process of cire perdue casting has been very well documented in antiquity, and Krishnan (1976) and Pal (1978) both cite classical Sanskrit sources, such as Manasara, Silparatna and Somesvara, which give detailed descriptions (or even prescriptions), conceivably for the regulation of the craft. It was certainly pervasive throughout the Indian sub-continent, as demonstrated by an ample archaeological record, and examples exist in gold, silver, copper, bell-metal, bronze and brass.

Our specific focus here is on the production of the range of brass artefacts, commonly known as 'dhokra'. Welch (1986, pp 103-113), provides illustrations of examples of fine cire perdue dhokra work of ‘tribal' origin dating back as far as the 18th Century, from locations as disparate as West Bengal, Purulia, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bastar (Madhya Pradesh), Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Bihar. The major contemporary centres of production are in West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, though the numbers of families engaged is everywhere in decline. The craft has historically been particularly associated with the so-called 'tribal' peoples of India. Its heartland for many centuries was in the metal-rich region of Central India, covering the modem regions of Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhatsigarh and parts of Andhra Pradesh. The practice was in the hands of family groups of non- Hindu semi-nomadic artisans, called' Dhokras'. Some of the Dhokra families appear to have migrated into the alluvial plains of Bengal, finally settling around centres such as Bankura, Burdwan, Purulia and Midnapur.

Despite its antiquity and wide geographical dispersion, it appears that the work of the dhokra makers was always marginal to the domestic economy of India, and did not achieve the importance and consequent security of, for example, the manufacture of water containers or cooking vessels. Dhokra making did not figure much in Birdwood's magisterial survey of 'The Industrial Arts of India' (1880), except, perhaps to be included in the following way (p.143): "Beside the village and sumptuary arts there are the savage arts of the wild tribes…"

Sen (1994) describes the traditional dhokra craft in West Bengal and its typical products:
"...they [The dhokra makers] used to move from village to village in the south- western districts, repairing old and broken utensils and selling small images of Lakshmi, her mount, the owl, Lakshmi Narayan riding on an elephant, Radha and Krishna in different attitudes, all made in a very strong and primitive folk style. These images were installed in the household shrines of newly married Hindu couples to bring prosperity and happiness. They also made and sold decorative caskets in different shapes and sizes, purchased by housewives for various purposes. They made and sold measuring bowls in different sizes. These were considered symbols of Lakshmi and were therefore highly prized by those villagers who could afford them. Ritual lamps in different designs were also popular items. Their other products included small models of animals and birds and a variety of trinkets and bells..."

The Dhokra Makers of Bankura, West Bengal and their Ethnography

One of the major remaining foci for the dhokra craft is some kilometres to the north of Bankura in West Bengal. Thirty six related families live in a close-knit clan community in Bikna village. According to Dhiren Karmakar, interviewed in September 2001, their forefathers were nomads who came from Chhota Nagpur. The actual caste origin of the Bikna artisans is obscure. This may be due in part to a process of gradual 'hinduisation' (see, for example, K.S. Singh, 1993), though their religious practices are far from the Hindu mainstream. Worship typically involves a simple open-air 'altar', at which offerings of terracotta figures are made. The offerings depend on the seasons, and may be related to the major Hindu festivals, such as Ganesha Chatthurti.

Any attempt to clarify the relationships and history of the dhokra makers of West Bengal suffers from the incomplete and fragmentary nature of the records. No records of this artisan industry survive from pre-colonial days, and the standard documentary resources, such as Risley's monumental 'Tribes and Castes of Bengal' (1891) must be seen as reflecting both the anthropological fashions of their era and, perhaps more significantly, the "divide et impera" priorities of colonial administration. The colonial fascination with caste and social taxonomies may stem more from a pragmatic need to create distinctions than from meaningful structures in contemporary Indian society.

There is certainly a great deal of confusion in evidence when one attempts to track the forefathers of the Bikna community through the pre-independence census data for Bengal. Mitra (1953. p.2) shows that census reports reveal a tendency for caste designations to increase or decrease in number according to current thinking, leading to apparently arbitrary aggregation and subsequent disaggregation of 'caste' groups. Mitra (ibid. p.5) points very succinctly to the problem when he notes wryly that:
"In the hands of a government which seeks to hold a country by force and guile, to rule by dividing the people, there can be few weapons as lethal as caste…"

Risley (ibid. Vol. 1 p. 236) defines 'Dhokra' as:
"A sub-caste of Kamars or blacksmiths in Western Bengal, who make brass idols."
Risley subsequently points out (ibid. pp. 388 - 389), regarding the sub-castes of the metal working caste of Kamars that:
"It is impossible at the present day to determine whether all of them are really derived from the Kamar caste; and it seems probable that some of them may be separate castes, which have been classed as Kamars on account of some real or supposed resemblance in their occupations."

By the middle years of the twentieth century, the Bankura dhokra makers were being described as 'Mal' or 'Malars', according to Risley (Vol. II p. 45-50):
"...A Dravidian cultivating caste of Western and Central Bengal..."
Which could just conceivably refer to large sections of the entire population of Bengal!

Ruth Reeves (1962) refers to the Bankura Dhokra as 'Kainkuya Mal' (which possibly derives from association with the traditional measuring vessels known in Bengali as 'kunke'). In doing so, she is following SK Ray's contribution to A. Mitra's ethnological analysis of the 1951 Census of India. In his treatment of 'The Tribal Group of Craftsmen', Ray asserts that:
"...We can divide the Mals readily into two groups: (i) the Sanakar Mals or painters and (ii) the Kaikuya [NB it is possible that this variant of the name is simply a typographic error] Mals or brass workers... They have an occupational system similar to that found among the Mala of South India, namely the Loom-Mala, the Cart-Mala, the Hammer-Mala, the Doll-Mala etc. As a matter of fact, the form of caste system that prevails among the aboriginal and backward classes of West Bengal can be called the Mala-system."

Reeves (ibid. p.36) also refers to the Bankura dhokra makers as 'Dheppos' described by Ray, (ibid. p.302) as:
"...wandering artisans belonging to aboriginal stock [who] maintain a tradition of metal craft in a primtive manner...

Ray, however, seems to imply that this latter group was not associated with the cire perdue tradition. In any case, earlier attempts to locate migratory dhokra makers (whatever their caste) in the region seem to have failed (see Reeves, ibid. p.37), perhaps indicating that the migratory way of life had ended some time before these groups attracted the attention of the great and good. Nevertheless, the evidence of this report will show that the essential metal founding technology used by the people of Bikna village was more appropriate to a migratory than a settled way of life, and the problem may be one of a confusion of terminology.

Mitra (ibid. pp.1-3) helps to explain much of this confusion by detailing the changing practices in recording caste adopted by the Census of India between the 1901 Census and the first Post- Independence census in 1951 (when caste distinctions were legally abolished). In any case, as he points out (ibid. p. 6):
"...caste has not been so immutable... as one is too willing to imagine, but a live and pliant force, sensitive to change, as any function of society must necessarily be."

The fairly recent adoption of the 'sanskritised' caste designation 'Karmakar' by the Bankura dhokra artisans must be seen in this light, reflecting the villagers' sense of social progression and a degree of approximation to the mainstream of Hindu society in West Bengal. It may, however, be analogous to the widespread adoption of surnames by English villagers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If this is the case, 'Karmakar' might be closer in sense to the surname 'Smith' than to the location in a traditional social structure which a true caste designation might imply. However, the Dhokra Karmakars of Bikna never made eating or cooking vessels, and this would imply a historic caste limitation. Despite their apparent annexation into the Karmakar caste, the dhokra makers are still socially and economically marginalised. On the following page, we show one of the artifacts created by these artisans in their village.

The Dhokra Making Tradition as Practised in Bikna Village

The Creative Process

Despite its stability over many centuries, the dhokra craft has not remained entirely static. As Sarkar (1998) points out from his analysis of the artisan Kansari (braziers) in Bengal:
" in Indian artisanal industry did change in response to market demands. If such changes appear rather timid and slow, it was because a radical transformation of the technique of production was never a pressing and unavoidable need in India."

The period of nearly four decades between the publication of Ruth Reeves' study and the initiation of this project in November 2000 witnessed a number of changes in the creative aspects of the dhokra craft as practised in Bikna. This is part of a long process of change, which Rajesh Kochhar (2001) characterised as falling into four phases:

"Phase I is defined by the original Dhokra repertoire, which is simple and stark, in keeping with the makers" life style and philosophy:

Phase II came into being when the Dhokra artisans took to settled life and started making new items consistent with the demands of a food-surplus economy: Their work now included rather ornate icons of Hindu gods and goddesses. Interestingly, in their own shrines, the Dhokra artisans have retained worship of their own creations (horses, elephants etc.) in addition to Bhairon, who is a form of Shiva, and a deity consistent with non-vegetarianism.

Phase III is characterised by two major developments: patronage extended by state and socialites; and interaction with creativesculptors like Meera Mukherjee and Pradosh Das Gupta. These artists successfully imbibed in their work techniques and motifs of the Dhokra art and, once accepted as insiders, introduced the Dhokra artisans to new forms. It was during this phase that, under state patronage, the well-known Bankura Horse, a stylised, decorated horse with long upright neck and pointed ears, which hitherto had been a preserve of the Khumbkars (clay artisans), was successfully adopted for casting in metal.

Phase IV, a recent phenomenon, has been thrust upon the Dhokra artisans by the demands of the cheap souvenir market. This phase is characterised by some 'novelty' items, such as a Ganesh with an umbrella. Most of the work, however, is pure kitsch. Since the price paid to the artisans is exploitatively low, they seek to indirectly enhance their wages by compromising on the quality of the inputs as well as craftsmanship".

Even in the course of a few months, the action research described here has now led to a further phase:
"Phase V; in which creativity levels have risen to match the technology available. Not only has the quality of realization improved but the artisans themselves have found a new creative confidence, and have thought of and created new artefacts not seen before."

If the creative content of Bikna dhokra work changed over time, their technology, on the other hand stayed remarkably constant - at least until the year 2001. Beautifully adapted to the conditions of the original nomadic lifestyle, the dhokra technology did not adapt to the settled way of life. The failure of the Bankura Dhokra Karmakars to modify their technology probably contributed to their creative and economic decline over the past fifty years.

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