Tribal Bronzes

Indian Tribal Lost Wax Bronzes

The ancient process of making cast metal figures, known as cire perdue or "lost wax", is still alive in the tribal areas of India today and is know there as Dhokra, meaning "oldest". This tradition of lost wax casting is an ancient one in India, going back to the Indus valley civilisations. Some historians say it originated at the time of the Sumerian culture in 2000 BC. Today it is practised by artisans who live in and around Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal as well as in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The lost wax technique means that a unique mould is made for each piece using clay and beeswax, from which these brass figures are then cast. Each clay mould can only be used once, as it must be broken in order to take out the final figure, which means each finished statue is one of a kind. The craftsman requires great skill and precision as the slightest mistake made in the mould can destroy the piece. A single piece can take four to five days to make, as the detailed description of the production technique, at the end of the text, makes clear.

The Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh is particularly well known for its fine Dhokra figures. The fascinating, imaginative and often very humorous pieces they produce today continue to represent the culture, beliefs and tradition of these remarkable craftsmen and reflect old forest myths and legends.

Most of the statues were made to fulfil the religious needs of the rural people, to put in the village shrine or household altar. Often the statues also travelled along with pilgrims and artisans who were constantly on the move in search of patronage. For this reason it is often quite difficult to precisely pinpoint where a statue originates from.

Many rural people in India hold strong animist religious beliefs in addition to Hindu beliefs; therefore, the themes of tribal Dhokra statues include images of Hindu and tribal gods and goddesses, figures of people or deities riding elephants, musicians, monkeys, owls and other birds. In addition, many of the tribal peoples of India have a tradition of ancestor worship. These clan ancestors and village heroes are usually shown as warriors riding a horse: these "spirit riders" died on the battlefield fighting against the enemy. It was a common practise to deify these human beings after their death and it is therefore an often seen theme in Dhokra statues. These horse riders were intended for worship, to placate the ancestor's soul as well as keep his memory alive for the next generation.

Partly because of the fact that the craft was passed from father to son, the folk traditions have managed to hold on to many of their ancient characteristics and themes since prehistoric times. The strange and weird figures are a significant part of folk village culture, a culture that still survives in fundamentally the same form in village India today.

Scholars and art collectors have long neglected folk art in India. However, gradually art lovers are discovering that these weird looking figurines deserve as significant a place as classical sculpture. The only difference between the artisans working in classical and rural styles is that the latter were more free, direct and spontaneous in their approach.

Almost all the ancient brass Dhokra pieces have been lost or destroyed, often melted down to make utensils. The pieces available today are usually contemporary, or at most fifty to seventy years old.

The above information has been extracted from the wonderful book "Indian Folk Bronzes" (New Delhi, 1991) by Shri K.C. Aryan, a leading expert on Indian folk art, and is still in print today. We highly recommend it.

A Note On Brass:

Brass, as currently defined, is an alloy of two parts copper to one part zinc. In the past, however, the proportions were variable. Some craftsmen have described the usual alloy as being made up of half copper, a quarter zinc with the remainder being waste brass from a multitude of sources, including old vehicle radiators. The alloy actually often depended to a large extent on what was available. To add to the confusion, the metal statues and figurines are also often referred to as "bronzes" which is an alloy of copper and tin. And if the tin content is high, the alloy is referred to as bell metal.

Zinc, with copper the essential ingredient in brass manufacture, requires a particularly complex smelting process, only know to European metallurgists in the 1720's. Recent excavations at Zawar in Southern Rajasthan have revealed evidence of zinc smelting probably as far back as the 14th century.

The Technique of Dhokra as described on

TECHNIQUE I: The lost wax process is the only technique used by the tribal artist of Bastar to create the Dhokra sculptures. All the artwork is one of a kind and never reproduced on a large scale.

The first step in the process is to create a wax model. The wax model is the exact replica of what the finished brass piece will look like. A combination of 60% paraffin and 40% bees wax is used. This wax has to be kept malleable at all times. The artisans make use of their hands and some basic tools to shape this wax model. First a general shape of the model is produced in wax. The details are etched or embossed on to this model using a heated metal file to give it the required smoothness. For larger models each part is finished separately and then the wax model is assembled. Once completed the wax models are kept into water to assure that they do not loose the shape in the heat of the sun. Most of the artisans work in the natural light of the sun so the entire process depends on the weather.

The wax model is then covered with clay to make the mold into which the molten brass will be poured to make the final brass sculpture. The first layer - the closest to the clay and wax sculpture is the river bed soil. A paste is made by adding water and coal to this fine soil. It is applied to the wax model using a paint brush so that it takes on the textures and shapes of the original clay sculpture to the exact. The fine consistency of this solution allows it to pick up the finer features of the wax model. Once dry two more layers using the same paste are applied. once they are completely dry, a red soil with rice husk is applied to solidify the soil layer - it is a pasty solution which is applied on with hands. Once this paste is dry two holes are made at the bottom of the mold and hollow wax rods are passed through it and attached to the wax model inside. These serve as a passageway for the molten brass to be poured in and for air bubbles to pass out. A final coating of rice husk, sand and clay is applied to the entire surface of the piece. This is the final coating of the mold which increases the thickness of the mold and covers the wax rods too. Small cups are made at the top of these rods to allow the molten brass to be poured in without spilling it. These molds are then sun dried before putting them into the kiln for the final stage.

The brass is heated in big containers called crucibles. Once the molds and the brass containers are ready for firing they are placed in the kilns with the molds on the top and the containers at the bottom. The molds are positioned with the wax rods facing downward allowing the wax to burn out as the oven is heated. Once the firing is completed the molds are removed with the hollow of the wax rods facing upwards. Forceps are used to pick the container with molten brass so that it can be poured in through the hollows of the wax rod. The molds are allowed to cool for at least two hours. The mold is then broken and the clay is chipped off the brass sculpture.

Final finishing is done using metal files or by heating strips of metal and filling holes that might have been left by air bubbles. After this the final sculpture is finished and buffed to give it a shine. Sometimes they are partially painted on if the design so demands.

TECHNIQUE II: The above technique is the original one passed down from generation to generation. It makes the piece heavy and with changing times a slight modification has been brought into the technique to make lighter sculptures. The technique for the lighter pieces is as follows:

The process of production starts with preparing a mixture of clay and rice husk (Chaval ka Chilkha), which is kneaded and sculpted into different figures. When the clay model is dry its surface is smoothened by rubbing a broad bean leaf (Sem ka patta) on it. The clay model is finished and the final decorative accents are added on by using wax threads which are pasted onto the clay object. The jewelry and other decorative elements that you notice on these sculptures are the ones added on in wax. This wax threads are obtained by passing blocks of wax through a metal sieve.

The wax model is then treated with different kinds of soil to make the final mold. The first layer - the closest to the clay and wax sculpture is the river bed soil. This is the finest soil which when applied takes on the textures and shapes of the original clay sculpture to the exact. The river bed soil is mixed with coal and sieved to get the finest mixture and applied in order to fuse the wax thread designs into the clay. After this, a red soil with rice husk is applied to solidify the clay.

The next stage involves baking in Kiln (Bhatti). The clay and wax objects are put in the kiln. The final clay mould has holes made at the bottom through which the wax when melted can flow out; the melted brass is then poured in. This is allowed to cool and the mould is broken to obtain the final piece.

This technique makes hollow brass sculptures which are filled inside with clay as opposed to the original process.