Archive for December 8th, 2008

Subramanya Chandrasekhar : A tribute (1999)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – 3 Comments

The Tribune , Chandigarh, 27 July 1999

INDIA -BORN US ASTROPHYSICIST
Chandra observatory: tribute to a legend
 Rajesh Kochhar

The recent X-ray observatory launched into space by the USA has been named Chandra after the India-born American astrophysicist. This is a befitting tribute by the USA to a man who did much to invigorate American astronomy.

Chandrasekhar, popularly called Chandra, came to the USA in 1937 as a scientific refugee from Europe, after spending his seven most creative years at Cambridge University. He was the first person to apply the theory of special relativity to astronomy. He showed that there is an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf. (This limit is now known as the Chandrasekhar Limit.) What happens if the white dwarf mass is higher than the Chandrasekhar Limit? In what must rank as the understatement of the century, Chandrasekhar declared: “One is left speculating on other possibilities.”

The other possibilities, of course, are the neutron star and the black hole, whose properties the Chandra observatory would study.

The course of astronomical history would have been different if Chandrasekhar’s work, mathematically rigorous as it was, had received immediate recognition. But at that time it met with ridicule at the hands of the most influential astronomer of the day, Sir Arthur Eddington, who declared with a haughtiness one associates with a viceroy rather than scientists: “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.”

Sir Arthur was blinded by his self-righteousness, the rest of Europe by the glare of his personality. For four long frustrating years, Chandrasekhar tried to enlist support from among the physicists and astronomers but to no avail.

Sir Arthur’s hostility delayed the development of the subject by a generation. The discovery of quasars in 1963 and of radio pulsars in 1967 proved that relativistic astrophysics was not merely a mathematical artifact but also had the sanction of direct observation. Chandrasekhar could have got the Nobel Prize anytime after 1967 but not before this. (He got it 16 years later, in 1983). It was, however, not till 1974 that a medal awarded to Chandrasekhar referred to his white dwarf work.

Sir Arthur’s academic hostility robbed Chandrasekhar of his innocence. He moved to the USA (“Out there we don’t believe in Eddington”), resolving not to hanker after recognition but to let his work speak for itself. Henceforth mathematics would be his ally and time his judge.

As if to provide a physical basis to his resolve, Chandrasekhar bade goodbye to his first love, stellar structure. He would take on a new subject, write a definitive treatise on it and move on. Significantly, while his first work was the first word on the subject, his subsequent works have tended to be the last word. Even without the white dwarf work, Chandrasekhar would have been an outstanding astrophysicist, but he would not have won the Nobel Prize.

A few years ago, during one of his visits to Bangalore, I asked Chandrasekhar what was more satisfying, saying the first word or the last. His answer was rather long and involved. He first educated me who had first used the terms “first word” and “last word”. He then analysed the works of French and other painters. Regrettably, his efforts to raise my aesthetic sensibilities failed. All I learnt was that I was not getting a reply to my question.

It was indeed a bold step for Chicago University and the Yerkes Observatory to hire Chandrasekhar, who was the first non-white member of the faculty. He more than repaid the consideration shown to him. His outsidedness was put to good use when he edited the Astrophysical Journal for 19 strenuous years, “and turned it into a world-class publication.” He was, however, never offered the presidentship of the American Astronomical Society.

In 1966, he was given the National Medal of Science by the American President. It was the first time that the medal went to an astronomer. The citation made specific reference to Chandrasekhar’s contribution to the training of manpower.

He had an extraordinarily retentive memory. In August, 1949, he wrote to a friend: “I recall replying to your letter of June 6, 1937.” In 1992, I had an occasion to discuss with him an incident that had taken place in 1927: how at an international conference in Cuomo, Italy, D.M. Bose turned up much to the chagrin of the organisers who had wished to see S.N. Bose instead. Chandrasekhar heard the story from his friend, K.S. Kushnan, who in turn had heard it from the aggrieved Bose. Chandrasekhar recalled the details in his 1992 letter, closing it with a finality: “My recollection of the story is quite distinct and I am sure it reproduces exactly what Krishnan told me.”

Chandrasekhar began his white dwarf work when he was still a student at Presidency College, Chennai. Could India have retained him?

Chandrasekhar’s tiff with Eddington had its effect on his fortunes in British India. From 1935 till 1944, Chandrasekhar remained in the doghouse. His rehabilitation came in 1944 with his election as a fellow of the Royal Society (where Eddington was one of his sponsors). After that he received a number of offers. First, there was this invitation from his overbearing uncle, C.V. Raman, to join the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, an offer Chandrasekhar could not have accepted. He could have joined Banaras Hindu University, where the Vice-Chancellor, S. Radhakrishnan, was keen to appoint him.

Why is it that any of these initiatives failed to produce results? Two years ago. I had the opportunity, with Mrs Lalita Chandrasekhar’s permission, to go through some (but not all) of the Chandrasekhar Papers deposited at the Chicago university. (The visit to Chicago, in turn, was made possible by a Fulbright grant). My own impressionistic answer is as follows.

There was a difference of perception between Chandrasekhar on the one hand and his family and advisers back home on the other. Left to himself, he would have accepted Homi Bhabha’s offer to come to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. His father and advisers, however, wished to see him as the Director of the Kodaikanal Observatory, a well-known astronomical centre in South India. Chandrasekhar, however, did not have any intention of accepting an administrative post, and wanted a university-like setting.

In his authorised biography by K.C. Wali, Chandrasekhar confirms this: “Left to myself I would have been tempted by Bhabha’s offer to a greater extent than I was. But I was advised against it by several people.”

His acceptance of American citizenship in 1953 put paid to all questions of returning. He would gladly have accepted a part-of-year professorship, but none came his way. Finally, on his retirement, there was again this possibility of returning home, but efforts remained half-hearted and ceased after a while.

What course would Indian science and education have taken if Chandrasekhar had returned? No doubt, he would have trained a large number of researchers, who in course of time would have occupied important positions in the Indian academy. Would Chandrasekhar’s total commitment to science have become the guiding principle for his students also? Would his conscientious negation of administrative and executive powers been emulated? In his own words, one is left speculating on the possibilities. As it turned out, in his native land, Chandrasekhar became an icon, a showboy, even a tool, but never a teacher or guide or a role model.

Chandrasekhar was a citizen of the world. He was an American by residence, European by training, but an Indian not only by birth but also by affiliations. In probably an unguarded moment, he wrote in a personal letter (1979): “You say that it never rains — it pours. “For me it seems to be always barren”.

(The author is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.)

Information and communication technology:Role of war and pornography(2003)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

 

DIMENSIONS of SCIENCE Lecture on 10 June 2003 at India International Centre, New Delhi

 Information and communication technology:

Role of war and pornography


 

Rajesh Kochhar

National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies,

K.S. Krishnan Marg, Pusa Gate, New Delhi 110 012 

            War and pornography have played a significant role in the development of information and communication technology (ICT).  Both war and porn are manifestation of baser instincts in man and therefore demand a certain degree of perseverance from their patrons. War, or more correctly the preparation therefore, represents state support to the hilt for creation of a new technology, whereas porn represents select public support during its teething days, paving the way for eventual widespread and varied use.

 

When a new technological process or product is first introduced or used, it is in response to a felt need.  Very soon however it generates a momentum of its own, drawing into its fold new adherents whose needs could not have been anticipated before.  History of science and technology provides many examples of this.

 

Innovator vis-à-vis user

           

By liberating human enquiry from the constraints of physiology, telescope transformed astronomy (and science).  Yet telescope was not invented by an astronomer.  More importantly, it could not have been invented by an astronomer.  It was a spectacle-maker, already in possession of convex and concave lenses, who combined the two, by accident or otherwise, to create an instrument that  could  see far.  Not  surprisingly, the very  first use  envisaged for

 

telescope was in spotting ships hours before they became visible to the unaided eye.  That was in 1608.  Almost four centuries later, Hubble space telescope liberated optical astronomy from the constraints imposed by earth’s atmosphere.  Yet again, space telescope was not the first one in space.  There were others before it, placed in orbit face down by military for spying on terrestrial targets.  Obviously, fear of the enemy is a bigger driving force than love of stars.

 

            It did not take terrorists long to recognize that hiding their messages in soft-porn pictures through internet provides them with a safe and convenient way of keeping in touch with one another.  Similarly an underworld don has discovered the virtues of being in jail.  State protects him from his blood – thirsty rivals while mobile phone permits him to run his business uninterruptedly.  Combination of live sports commentary and wireless telephony has revitalized Satta trade.  Havala operators have also upgraded their modus operendi.  They no longer use a currency note expressly torn into two as an identifier, but the innocuous cell phone number.  In all these cases, a system developed by others for their own purpose has been put to good use by new entrants.  Chillingly, internet has opened entirely new vistas for child abusers who can now form an alliance among themselves and target their victims safely and unobtrusively.

 

            The above examples illustrate a general “law”.  The bigger the beneficiary of an innovation, the less his chances of having been its author.

 

The rather eventful journey of a technological product from its inception till mass use can be broadly understood in the framework of a new model involving three-overlapping stages (ECM model)

ECM model

I.                     Experimental stage.  This stage belongs to the technologists and specialists who create and develop a new product over a period of time to a level that it can be made available to the non-specialist for use.

II.                   Committed-use stage.  This class of user, by virtue of his commitment, remains undaunted by the defects and shortcomings of the new product, gives it vital support in its nascent state and thereby helps its further development to a stage where it can be considered user friendly, and economically viable.

III.                  Mass-use stage.  This stage is characterized by what we may call “Moronification of technology”, whereby a technology is simplified to such an extent that it can be used without application of mind or without any attendant risk.  The product is now ready for mass use, which as stated earlier generates its own momentum, and creates its own culture freeing the technology from its previous history.

 

Colt’s revolver:  A case study

 

            We shall now apply the ECM model to the case history of revolver, a major 19th century technological product invented by Samuel Colt (1813-1862) in USA.  Working as a sailor on a ship bound for London and Calcutta and by observing the ship’s wheel, or possibly the windlass, Colt in 1831 came up with the idea of a gun with a revolving cylinder that could fire multiple shots from a single barrel.  He first made a crude model in wood and then got prototypes made by a gunsmith.  In 1835 he patented his revolver in England and France.  Next year he received a US patent and started production.  The period 1831-1836 corresponds to the first, Experimental, stage of the model.

 

            The second, Committed-user, stage may be said to last from 1836 to 1873 with major patronage and incentives for improvement coming from the military.  An ordinary rifle required time for reloading and therefore could be fired only once or twice in a minute.  In the same time however a native American could devastatingly fire 20 arrows.  Repeating firearms would be extremely effective against arrows, and the US military did order some from Colt.  But since there were not too many native Americans to be shot, the number of orders was small, and the Colt company collapsed.

 

Colt’s fortunes were revived with the war against Mexico in 1847, when the government placed bulk orders for revolvers and rifles.  American civil war,  California gold rush, colonization of American west, Crimean war and demand from Europe all brought tremendous prosperity to Colt, and improvements in his death machines.  Early guns were very heavy, complicated, “easily fouled up”, and potentially lethal to the shooter.  The last defect was remedied in 1873, with the development of the metallic-cartridge revolver, the mainstay of a model ironically called Peacemaker, which soon became not only the standard issue of the US army but also the most popular gun in the west.  In the committed use stage, the revolver was aimed at a designated enemy; in its mass-use stage, it could be aimed at friends and strangers also.

 

Internet

Internet is a child of fear.  It was created to withstand a nuclear war.  A traditional communication system collects all information at a central control, processes it and then sends it somewhere else.  This system would collapse if a nuclear attack destroyed the central control.  US Defence department in mid-1960s started funding research to create a computer network without a central control system.  The key to the new network was “packet switching”.  A dataset was broken into small packets, each labelled with the destination address.  Once they arrive at the destination, the packets would be reassembled.  It does not matter in what order and by what route a packet reaches its destination.  A packet could be sent to an intermediary site.  If this site was not working or was processing slowly, the packet would find another route and eventually reach its destination.  This internet is based on a principle similar to the old Indic philosophy:  Destination is important, not the route.  Internet is decentralized by design and inherently anarchic.  Neither can its connectivity be thwarted nor the content censored.  Therein lie internet’s strengths and risks.

            The first network created in 1969 was called ARPAnet, after the funding agency, namely Advanced Research Projects Agency.  In 1972, internet e-mail address incorporated the now-familiar @ sign.  In January 1983, a new protocol called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol was introduced to handle a large number of hosts in the network.  The same year ARPAnet was split into ARPAnet and MILnet, both remaining under Defence department.  It is a measure of the role of military in the early years of internet that as many as 68 of the 113 nodes went to MILnet.  (ARPAnet would be closed in 1990).

            In the early 1980s, a number of large and small specialist networks came up including the one for high-energy physicists.  It is this network that created World Wide Web, in 1989, which enables a computer to access information stored elsewhere.  Web’s ability to transmit moving and stationary images and sound gave internet a vitality, creators of web or net could never have imagined.  Web was thrown open to public in 1991.  The term “surfing the net” was coined in 1992, and the net itself was commercialized in 1995.

 

            The period from ARPAnet (1969) to commercialization of web-fortified internet (1995) is then the Experimental stage of our ECM model.

Table 1.  Internet:  Experimental stage

 

1969                                  ARPAnet established

 

1972                                  @ sign introduced in e-mail address

 

1983                                  TCP/IP introduced as regulatory protocol.  ARPAnet split into ARPAnet and MILnet, both under US Defence department.  68 out of the 113 nodes went to MILnet

 

1989                                  World Wide Web created

 

1990                                  ARPAnet closed

 

1991                                  Web released for public use

 

1992                                  Term “surfing the net” coined

 

1995                                  Internet commercialized

 

 

  

 

Committed-use stage

            (Please note that in the following no moral judgement is made on the website content) 

            Porn sites were among the very first ones on commercialized net.  Sex has always sold, but never so well as on the net.  Porners have benefitted from the net, and strengthened it in the process.  Porn sites have contributed at three levels:  technological innovations; standardization; and lessons for mainstream business.

 

            Since porn sites did not get any support from venture funds, they had to make money and quickly.  They acquired top-class hardware and high bandwidths, and went on to hire thousands of highly skilled workers like network engineers, programmers and graphic designers.  They gave valuable business to companies like Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics.  In a little publicized incident, when a porn portal clandestinely arranged to route calls from a client through more expensive lines, it had the technical expertise of AT&T at its disposal.

 

            To many porn customers who were abashed to visit a traditional sex shop, e-commerce came as a godsend.  No wonder porners have been pioneers in e-commerce.  They were the first to accept credit cards for on-line payment and to use shopping-cart technology.  Porn sites have been the earliest adopters of innovations such as streaming video. Porn-site profits often reach 30%, compared to a paltry 0.2% profit in online stock trading.  Getting over their early revulsions, mainstream companies like Disney and Warner Brothers are trying to benefit from technologies and business practices originating from porn services.

 

            In the early years, porn sites accounted for as much as 80% of total e-commerce revenue.  The figure has since come down to about 20%, signifying transition from the Committed-use stage to Mass-use stage for the internet.

 

Mobile internet 

            In the early 1980s Europe had a number of analog cellular telephone systems, operating within boundaries of different countries, incompatible with one another in equipment and operation.  Keeping in mind requirements of a unified Europe, expanded market for each type of equipment, and advantages of economy of scale in 1982, Europe set up a study group called Groupe Special Mobile (GSM) to study and develop a pan-European mobile system.  GSM standard was issued and commercial service started mid 1991.  The most basic teleservice provided by GSM is telephony.  Additionally, a number of data services are also offered.  A unique feature of GSM, not found in older analog systems, is the SMS (Short Messaging Service) whereby short alphanumeric messages can be sent.  Messages can also be stored in the SIM card for later retrieval.   GSM systems now exist on every continent and account for 65% of the world’s mobile networks.  Very aptly, GSM now stands for Global System for Mobile communication.

 

            SMS is an example of a peripheral feature that caught on without the knowledge of network operators and went on to become the mainstay of the system.  SMS was rather difficult to use.  It was left to the young people to master the technique and use the service, developing in the process a whole new economical language of their own, combining letters, numbers and other symbols.  While a phone call cost money, SMS was free.  Network operators were technically unable to bill pre-pay customers for SMS.  The technologically savvy young mobile – owners made use of this loophole to the hilt.  It is only after seeing the huge popularity of SMS that the network operators rose to change prepay customers for SMS messages.

 

            Next generation of mobile phones will provide internet connectivity, which means that it will be possible to view pictures and video on the screen of a mobile phone.  Operators have paid an exorbitant $ 1 bn as license fees for running 3G mobile services in Europe.  Unfortunately for them 3G has miserably failed to repeat the technological success of GSM.   Much of the money spent by operators on 3G is already considered unrecoverable.  “The only services that are likely to generate the necessary revenues to pay for the licenses will be thoroughly unsavoury ones such as pornography, gambling, and worse”.  A great advantage of buying pornography over a mobile network is that billing can be handled by the operator without the subscriber having to submit credit card details over the internet. Many porn groups have signed agreements with operators in Britain and Spain as well as several other European operators for porn-related SMS.

 

            “In new technologies, adult services usually account for 80 per cent of traffic.  It has been so with video, the internet and DVD.  It is natural to assume it will be the same with mobile internet”, according to CEO of an “adult services” company.

 

            To sum up, baser instincts of man play a major role in the development of science and technology.  Sad but true.

 

 

Dhokra craft in West Bengal and Jharkhand (2003)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

                   Talk given at International seminar on Downsizing Technology for Rural Development; held at Regional Research Laboratory Bhubaneswar, 7 Oct. 2003.                                                               

Continuity embedded in change: Dhokra craft in

West Bengal and Jharkhand

 

Rajesh Kochhar

NISTADS: National Institute of Science Technology and

Development Studies, Pusa Gate,

K.S. Krishnan Marg, New Delhi 110 012

 

 

            The art of making things as handed down from generation to generation constitutes traditional crafts. Traditional technologies are empirical in nature.  Through trial and error they were brought to a satisfactory level of performance and then more or less frozen.  This is in contrast to modern technologies that are based on well-understood principles of science and therefore are amenable to modifications/improvements.

             

            Traditional crafts can be discussed under three broad categories: (i) Tools required for production of wealth (e.g. agricultural and animal husbandry implements).  (ii) Crafts catering to lifestyle (textiles, kitchenware, recreation, etc.) (iii) Artefacts dealing with belief system, rituals, creative urges, etc.  While rural and semi – urban economy still depends on the crafts of the first category, modern age assigns great value and price to economically non-essential ‘heritage’ crafts.

While trad-techs quite obviously served their purpose in earlier times, they need to be re-evaluated in the present-day context of economy, resource utilization, eco-friendliness, profitability, etc. What is the best way of adapting trad-techs to the needs of the day? Traditional technical processes are inherently stable.  Any suggested change or improvement must be absorbable and non-disruptive.  It must take place in small incremental steps, each step leading to the establishment of an intermediary equilibrium state.  The bond of ease and comfort between a craftsman and his craft should never be broken. A craftsman operates in an equilibrium state, determined by an interplay of three factors (I) employed technology over which the craftsman already has mastery ;(ii) availability of raw materials and facilities for repairs and (iii) readily accessible market with agreed pricing. If this equilibrium state is perturbed by changing technology alone, without corresponding changes in maintenance and marketing factors, then the craftsmen will lose rather than gain.

 

Many years ago, a home science lesson in a school dealt with the budget of a family with a monthly income of 1000 rupees.  (Those were the days when the four figure was a high salary).  The teacher listed a number of budgetary subheads (house rent; food; savings; maid servant; entertainment; dining out; newspapers; etc) and distributed the 1000 rupees among them. She then asked the students to work out at home the budget of a 100 rupee-per-month family.  The students dutifully downscaled the earlier figures, so that you had the poor family spending five rupees on a maid – servant; two rupees on magazines, and so on!  In some superficial ways (size of shoes and clothes) a child is a scaled-down version of an adult.  But in fundamental respects, such as number of bones, focal length of eyes, and most importantly working of mind, a child is an independent identity. 

            In a similar manner rural development and trad-tech need to be viewed in their own framework.  “Downsizing of modern technologies” and “upgrading rural technologies” are flawed prescriptions and concepts, because they are urban-centric.  They seek to build an insensitive, unequal, unidirectional giver-recipient relationship.  The relationship between traditional craftsmen and their craft goes beyond dictates of livelihood.  For the craftsmen, their craft is their identity, a matter of pride and a source of self-esteem.  Any initiative that deliberately or unwittingly tends to injure this pride is bound to be counterproductive, no matter how well intended the initiative is.  We must recognize the craftsmen’s innate sense of worthiness, acknowledge it, respect it, and seek to enhance it.  It has been said, and rightly so, that we learn from our equals, not from our superiors.  Craftsmen must trust us before we can influence them.  If they do not accept us socially they will reject the solutions offered by us. If anything needs to be downsized for the sake of rural development, it is the urban superciliousness.

                    We shall now focus on the metal casting process known as  Dhokra

 

Dhokra process

            Lost wax (cire per due) process of metal casting is an ancient technology that was once prevalent widely throughout the world.  In this process, wax is first formed into an object, encased in a mould of fireproof material such as clay, and then drained out to make way for molten metal.  Unlike Europe, which rediscovered lost-wax during renaissance, India has maintained an unbroken tradition since at least mid-third millennium BC, with the famous Mohenjodaro bronze figurine of a dancing girl being the earliest recorded specimen from the subcontinent.  In India today lost-wax figures in two geographically and culturally distinct traditions.  South Indian tradition focuses on casting “sensuous and sacred”, mostly Shaivite, icons in accordance with prescriptions laid down in ancient texts.  Nourished and sustained by royal patronage through the Pallava (7-9th centuries AD), Chola (10-13th), and Vijayanagara (14-16th) dynasties, it robustly survives in the small town of Swamimalai (in Tamil Nadu), which has easy access to fine clay from the nearby  Kaveri  (Cauvery) river.  Swamimalai makes idols for the Hindus settled abroad and others as well as smaller artifacts.

 

            The second lost-wax tradition, known as Dhokra, is practised in the mineral-rich, central Indian tribal belt and the contiguous alluvial districts of West Bengal.  The original home of Dhokra (name is assigned to both the craft and the community) is probably Bastar (Chhalisgarh state) from where it is believed to have spread to other tribal areas (Jharkhand, Orissa, parts of Andhra Pradesh) through migrations and assimilation.  Many of the communities engaged in the craft retain memories of past ethnic linkages and migrations (some of these memories may have  been  planted by anthropologists in recent field-study times).  But quite obviously there were pre-existing metal – working communities who in course of time added  Dhokra to their repertoire. 

 

We shall now draw  on our own fieldwork  carried out during past three years at three locations :  Bikna ( Bankura district , West Bengal ) , Dariapur (Bardhman district, West Bengal ) and Jabardah (Dumka district , Jharkhand ). While Dariapur and Jabardah are old Dhokra habitats, Bikna on the outskirts of Bankura town was settled in c.1983, bringing in shilpis from Rampur suburb in Bankura town and elsewhere. Some decades ago , Dariapur was a vibrant Dhokra center ; it is in decline now. Bikna in contrast is doing relatively better both on artistic and commercial fronts. Jabardah is the poorest. The craftsmen here make only small artifacts , with fine jaali work as their forte .Bikna and Dariapur are related by marriage and social contacts .,while Jabardah interacts with Dariapur  at a professional level.

            Most Dhokra shilpis in West Bengal are Mallars [pronounced Mallaar] by caste  (there are variations of the name). Believed to be migrants from Orissa ,they constitute an endogamous group called Dhokra Kamar [pronounced Kamaar].  Various Kamar groups all have since been designated Karmakars, which have started intermarrying.  Interestingly, while the Dhokra Kamars now marry into Ghatra Kamars, the latter are not welcome into the Dhokra club. However the Bikna Dhokra Kamas will not mind sharing their new know-how with their kinsmen in Orissa , with whom otherwise they have no contact.  In Bikna and Dariapur there are a few non-Mallars who have taken to Dhokra, but they are not fully integrated into the Mallar mainstream.  In Dumka district, Dhokra work is carried out by Jadu Patuas, who bear Muslim names; their customers and patrons are the Santhal  tribals. To add to their meager Dhokra income they till Santhal lands on 50-50% basis. There are other Jadu Patua groups not associated with Dhokra. This is an interesting fact, because souvenir market literature often flaunts Dhokra as  an exotic tribal art. The Dhokra craftsmen in Bikna are officially below  the poverty line. Before  beginning our work in Dariapur we inspected the account books of the cooperative society to learn that the monthly income was 800-1000rupees per family ( not per person)

 

            Unlike the south Indian lost-wax tradition that is codified, the Dhokra tradition is fluid and informal, practised by more-or-less autonomous communities.  Details of the process itself, motifs and themes are location-specific driven by local culture and economy.  Within the folds of broad uniformity of technology, there resides a wide spectrum of diversity occasioned by local availabilities, requirements and sensitivities.  Dhokra craft is best seen not as a monolith, but as a commonwealth of inter-related yet independent sub-traditions. 

 

            Although the Dhokra shilpis have been leading a settled life for very many generations, their technology had remained a throwback to their nomadic times.  (See below for recent technological changes.)  Till our intervention during the last three years, metal casting was still being separately done by each family setting up its own makeshift, fuel-inefficient, open furnace. While technology remained fossilized, the craft did not remain static.  We can in fact distinguish between four phases of development under old technology (a fifth phase has been added recently)

 

            Phase I is defined by the original Dhokra repertoire, which is simple and stark in keeping with the makers’ life style and philosophy.  This repertoire includes lid-less measuring bowls called Kunke or Pa’ila.  In Jabardah, the Jadu Patuas make them for their own use as well as for their Santhal clientele.  In Bikna and Dariapur, the shilpis make them for themselves and souvenir buyers.

 

            Phase II came into being when the Dhokra shilpis took to settled life and meeting the requirements of their patrons.  Thus in Bengal, their work now included rather ornate icons of Hindu gods and goddesses.  Interestingly, unlike their clients who worship their creator, Dhokra shilpis in Bikna worship their own creations (houses, elephants, etc.) in addition to Bhairon, a form of Shiva, and a deity consistent with non-vegetarianism.  In Jabardah, Jadu Patuas make small things like anklets, bracelets, and ghunghrus. Cycle ball bearings are placed in anklets for tinkling. Small anklets are made for the Santhal’s fowls and peacocks.  Small knives can be attached to these anklets for cockfight.

           

            Phase III is characterized by two major developments: patronage extended by the state and the social elites; and interaction with creative sculptors 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 stylized 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 characterized by such “novelty” items as a Ganesh with an umbrella.  Much of the work is pure kitsch; yet it is a welcome source of income, even if meager, because over years, purchases by government agencies have gone down.  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 (“tribal doll”, “mother goddess”).  Very often, when the traders descend on the shilpis’ village to make purchases they pay exploitatively low prices. (Realized price is higher if negotiations take place away from place of work. As the old Bengali saying goes, never take the fish buyer to the fishpond.)  In such cases the shilpis seek to indirectly raise their wages by lowering craftsmanship and compromising on the quality of the inputs.  Thus they may use inferior quality of metal scrap and substitute   coal tar for wax-mix, called dhuna.

 

            Phase V, ushered by NISTADS in 2001, is defined by technological improvements accompanied by imparting an enhanced sense of worthiness and providing direct help in marketing. Technological changes introduced include a pucca furnace; brazing rather than tin soldering; changing the composition of the alloy when required; and concept of leveling and measurement.  The new furnace is smoke-free; saves fuel and metal; and permits large-sized objects to be cast.  It has also transformed the casting from a family affair into a community affair. Remarkably, creative levels have risen to match the technology available.  Not only are the shilpis making bigger and better artifacts, they have also added new forms and motifs on their own.  

 

     It is noteworthy that first person  in the area to use a pucca furnace for Dhokra work was not a traditional Dhokra shilpi .A matriculate and a Ghatra Kamar by caste , Netai Karmakar learnt about new possibilities in brass industry in 1995  through efforts of NISTADS , and on invitation  spent a month at National Metallurgical Laboratory , Jamshedpur, familiarizing himself with various types of furnaces. On his request  NISTADS resident scientist ( Dr A.K.Mukhopadhyay) designed a furnace for Netai, which  the latter got built for himself. In 1996 he took to Dhokra work and got himself registered as a  Dhokra maker and got a 60000 –rupee loan from the state Khadi board on NISTADS ’recommendation. ( Now Netai has a work force of 14 drawn from traditional quarters in Orissa and Bikna ) As early as 1998 ,inspired by Netai ‘s  success , the Dhokra Kamars in Bikna  tried to get a pucca furnace for themselves , but could not cross the various hurdles. Late 2000, NISTADS took it upon itself to upgrade  Bikna practices.

           

NISTADS intervention

Our interaction with Dhokra shilpis has involved the following steps:

 

  1. Winning the shilpis’ confidence.  This was done in Bikna by helping them get outstanding payments from the government. In Dariapur, a defunct tube well was got repaired, and a young girl suffering from TB provided with medical advice and medication.  No initiative was needed in Jabardah where our reputation had preceded us.

 

  1. Respecting their expertise.  If the Dhokra shilpis are engaged in their age-old family and caste craft, rest of humankind should feel obliged to them. If they give up their craft, the loss will be ours and not theirs.  We sat with them on their turf, and discussed their work.  To our surprise, they were quite aware of their shortcomings and handicaps.  In collaboration with them, we gave them technical help, scrupulously keeping out of the art and creative part of their work about which we have nothing to teach them.

 

  1. Social upgradation and help with marketing.  We brought them to Delhi; got their exhibition opened by a Minister; acted as their salesman; got good price for their products; took the help of government agencies such as Cottage Emporium, Manjusha, Dilli Haat, and  Tribes; and most importantly negotiated terms on their behalf with exporters and export suppliers for a stream of low-margin but steady  orders.

 

We consider our limited experiment to be a success on two counts. (i) There is an increase in the wages of the Dhokra shilpis, (ii) Earlier their teenager sons were looking for petty jobs outside.  That trend has been reversed. There is more money for them in their own village than in a teashop  Since we have been combining authority of the state with the earnestness of a good NGO, we have been able to influence their social life also.  Most families have now joint bank accounts; and their  boys and girls are going to school (Earlier the male adults would ask their sons rather than there wives for assistance.)  Our activities seem to  have sensitized local governments to the  international significance of Dhokra work and  the basic needs of the shilpis.

 

Problems remain. The capital requirements  of the shilpis are still fulfilled by private moneylenders who  lend without  paperwork but  in turn charge interest as high as 120% p.a.  More seriously, once the Dhokra  business has expanded, and new opportunities arisen, chances of their exploitation by their own people have  increased. Most shilpis do not have the training , communication skills or  social skills to look after their business interests. The hope is that if they can keep their furnaces burning and educate their children, the next generation will be able to continue and enhance the tradition , deriving pleasure , material benefit as well as social and state recognition from their pursuits

 

            To sum up, traditional craftsmen need help at three levels: (i) Benefit of higher-level social networking and assurance of continued interest and support; (ii) Technological assistance through absorbable and maintainable upgradation; (iii) Help in marketing implying higher wages for this self-employed labour force.  Of all these, the most important is the help in marketing. What use is improvement in quality if it does not bring in more money?

            I thank Dr. A.K. Mukhopadhyay  for  help.//