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Dhokra craft in West Bengal and Jharkhand (2003)

                   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.//


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