Nistads Dhokra Museum


Nistads, Pusa Gate
K. S. Krishnan Marg
New Delhi 110 012
Tel: 91-11-25743227, 25764064
Fax: 91-11-25754640;;

The Nistads Dhokra Museum inaugurated by Shri Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Vice-President of India, on 11 February 2003, houses Dhokra artefacts made in various parts of the Dhokra belt during the last three decades, the cultural age of the earlier artefacts being certainly much older than their chronological age.

The traditional craft that has seen many vicissitudes in its chequered history is the Dhokra, the practitioners of which are also called Dhokra. The Dhokra people are settled over a vast tract in the mineral-rich central Indian tribal belt covering the modern regions of Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Orissa and parts of Andhra Pradesh. They are also settled in the adjoining alluvial districts of Bankura, Bardhman, Purulia and Midnapur in the westernmost part of Bengal. Though all Dhokras are ethnically related, they are variously classified as scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, or other backward classes, depending on the prevailing socio-economic parameters.

In Bastar district of Chhatisgarh, Dhokra work is done by a metal-working caste, called kaser (after kansa, bronze) or ghadwa (meaning pot-maker). Two caste groups engaged in Dhokra work in Mayurbhanj district of Orissa are the Thetari Ranas and Thetari Naiks. The Bengal Dhokras retain memories of having migrated from Orissa. They believe that they originally came from Bastar. It is not clear whether this is a genuinely preserved tradition or a repetition of what they have been told about themselves. They are now called karamkars, an obviously successful attempt at Sanskritisation. Earlier literature lists them as mals or malars (as distinct from say ghatra kamars, who make kitchen utensils). Interestingly, even though the Dhokras and the ghatras have started inter-marrying, the latter are not welcome into the Dhokra club.

Dhokra craftsmen are artists first and metal workers later. It is bees-wax and not metal that permits them to give material shape to the creative images they form in their mind. The actual process can be summed up in six essential steps:

  • Step 1: Using rather coarse clay the shilpi makes a core vaguely resembling the end product. They clay core is hardened either by drying in the sun or by mildly firing in an oven.
  • Step 2 determines the artistic quality of the work. Drawing the bees-wax into stripes and thin wires, the artist wraps them around the clay core to produce a replica that is smooth and expressive. Bees-wax is often mixed with dhuna, that is the resinous gum of the sal tree (Shorea robusta), and boiled in mustard oil. The mixture also is called dhuna.
  • Step 3: The replica is coated with a thin layer of very fine wet clay. All the fine details of the wax replica are now impressed upon clay. This layer is sun dried, and further layers of clay added. The mould is now ready. The artist must now become a metal worker. A clay funnel is added for molten metal to flow inside the mould.
  • Step 4: The mould is carefully heated so that the wax melts and is lost (hence the name lost-wax technique) leaving behind a cavity.
  • Step 5 involved actual casting in a furnace. The cavity is filled with molten metal, and the mould left to cool.
  • Step 6: The clay mould is broken and the artefact taken out for cleaning and polishing. A new artefact has been created out of metal scrap.

The Dhokra shilpis often work with brass (copper + zinc) or bronze (copper + tin). If the tin content is high, the alloy is called bell metal. Unlike in the case of potters, where traditionally the turning wheel is reserved for men, all parts of Dhokra work can be done by either men or women. Children learn the craft through imitation and instruction.

Dhokra can identify five phases of development in the art of shilpis:

  • Phase I is identified by the original Dhokra repertoire, which is simple and stark in keeping with the maker's life style and philosophy.
  • Phase II came into being when the Dhokra shilpis took to settled life and started making new items consistent with the requirements of a food surplus economy. Their work now included rather ornate Hindu gods and goddesses. Interestingly, in their own shrines the Dhokra shilpis of Bikna 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 development: patronage extended by the state and the social elites; and interaction with creative sculptures like Meera Mukherjee. She successfully imbibed in her own work techniques and motifs of the Dhokra art and once accepted as an insider, introduced the Dhokra shilpis to new forms. It is during this phase that the stylised Bankura horse, hitherto a preserve of the kumbhkars (clay shilpis), was successfully adopted for casting in metal.
  • Phase IV, a relatively recent phenomenon, has been thrust upon the Dhokra shilpis by the demands of the cheap souvenir market. This phase is characterised by such "novelty" items as a Ganesh with an umbrella. Such has been the impact of this phase that the shilpis now describe their creations not in their own words but in the vocabulary given to them by the traders. Very often, when the traders descend on the shilpis' village to make purchases - the traders often pay extremely low prices. In such cases the shipis seek to indirectly raise their wages by lowering craftsmanship and compromising on the quality of the inputs. Thus they may use inferior quality of scrap and substitute coal tar for dhuna.
  • Phase V, ushered in at Bikna and Dariapur by NISTADS in 2001, is defined by technological improvements accompanied by an enhanced sense of worthiness and help in marketing (thanks to support from Cottage Emporium, Tribes and Manjusha). Remarkably, creative levels have risen to match the technology available. The shilpis making bigger and better new forms and motifs on their own.

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