Threads of Wax and Gold

Meeting the Dhokra artisans of Dhenkanal

The Rath Yatra (chariot procession) in Orissa, located in the eastern part of India, is an annual affair attended by scores of devotees from all over the country. After a hectic schedule at the festival (with all the mad frenzy around it) and meeting craftspeople around that area, I traveled to Dhenkanal to meet the Dhokra artisans. 

With the monsoon in all its fury, we waded through the potholed roads into the tiny dirt road that housed the thatched roof homes of the artisans.  We were led to the community elder Dushashan Behera’s home. We sat on the porch outside the house with the villagers surrounding us; Dushashan spoke to us through a translator. He only knows the local language Oriya and could not communicate with us in Hindi. He explained how his ancestors migrated from Bastar (another Dhokra settlement in India) more than a hundred years ago. Dhokra was a flourishing craft initially, but only 15 artisans remain today. The rest have taken opportunities in the burgeoning low skilled construction and mining business, earning roughly $2 per day.

The women displayed the beautiful wares stored in sack cloths. The older designs are large with intricate details. The newer ones lack the intricacy in scale. When I questioned Dushashan about the cause for decline in quality, he explained that the increase in cost of raw materials and the decrease in demand. Furthermore, the younger generation isn'tt trained in the art, leaving a few old men to practice the tedious process. 

The process is similar to other casting processes. A basic shape is made using clay. Thin strips of wax are wound on them to give the final shape. Little details are also added in the form of swirls. This layer is then covered with another coat of clay and a small opening is left at the bottom. During the heating process, wax melts and is drained out through this opening. A hollow is formed in between the two layers of clay. Molten brass is poured into the hollow through the hole. On cooling, the metal takes the shape of the wax swirls. The outer clay cover is broken and the piece is polished.

However the process doesn’t always produce perfect pieces. A hand-worked kiln’s temperature can’t be controlled, causing some pieces to collapse. Also the quality of metal is not uniform owing to sourcing difficulties. This leads to low quality products that can’t be sold.  Traditionally this craft was used to make idols of local deities that were worshipped in homes and temples during festivals. These idols have been replaced with cheaper alternatives. Inspired by their local environment, the artisans now make little figurines of animals and birds. Some NGOs have intervened and are working to develop new designs using this craft. This ancient craft is in desperate need of a new face and I decided to join this bandwagon of change.

In the backdrop of all this talk for change and improving living conditions, the most beautiful picture was that of the simple and happy life here. By the end of the meeting, the rain had stopped, leaving behind the idea of a hopeful future. 

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