provided by Krishna Kumar
Vishwakarma Arts Gallery, Hyderabad
In the tribal district of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, which is predominately tribal in demographic composition, various handicrafts have played an important socio- religious function. Two decades ago when I first visited Jagdalpur, the district head quarters of the District of Bastar, I was immediately taken in by the fascinating culture, dress, dances, songs, and the myriad handicrafts which served their religious and also social functions. What particularly attracted me was that even the most mundane items of daily use were crafted aesthetically with great skill, care and love.
The tribal women, after combing, tuck in the bamboo combs in to their hair as decorative element in their hairdo. The combs are crafted with fine slivers of bamboo, bound together with a reed grown on the riverbanks, in very intricate geometrical patterns. The patterns are so complicated and beautiful, that it makes one wonder at the complexity of the creative process of the Uneducated and Illiterate Tribals. They do not undergo any formal design training but their products are the result of the innate and instinctive design sense evolved over thousands of years.
The Tribals in order to pass their time while grazing their cattle and sheep, swing a long bamboo pole, with its insides worked in such a manner that it catches the wind resulting in very lyrical music being produced in undulating cadence, according to the motion of the swinging pole. This I feel not only serves the purpose of entertaining, but also seem to act as reference to the cattle and sheep to keep within the proximity of the humans to avoid the perils of the jungle predators.
One particular community called the Gadwas who are metal workers, have been catering to the various Tribal communities by producing various functional items used in their lives such as brass vessels, rice measures and the various tribal deities which reflect and symbolize the fears and aspirations of these people.
This distinctive art form which is now known world over, is called the Dokra Bell metal craft. The word Dokra seems to have been coined by an Art historian in reference to a similar craft being practiced in Orissa, but this reference is not very clear. Even the other term Gadwa Craft is also not very appropriate since the present day Gadwa community practicing this art seem to have been a very low class called the Ghasias who in order to improve their social status have adopted the Gadwa Surname. This is evident from the early 19th century comprehensive report of The British revenue commissioner Glasford and also other sources of reference. What ever be the name, the craft is very distinctive and truly represents the genius of the Tribal India.
The craftsman first shapes the item of production with clay mixed with hay and cowdung. The model after it is fully dried is covered with a thin layer of bees wax, over which thin strands of wax are applied in definite patterns to create the ornamentation and to delineate the various features of the item. These wax threads are extruded from a crude-calendering implement made of wood. The wax covered model is then again covered with a thick layer of fine clay. On one end of the mold a clay funnel is fixed and the other end a small hole is made. Brass metal obtained from the metal dealers of Jagdalpur is then broken into small pieces and placed in the funnel, which is then covered with clay. The entire mold is then placed in the pit kiln and fired with wood and dried cow dung. When sufficiently heated the metal in the funnel melts and flows down into to the space created by the melted wax exiting from the hole at the other end of the mold. The mold is removed from the kiln and let to cool. The mold is broken and chiseling away the excess metal from the surface finishes the item. The burnt clay and hay, which remains within the brass casing, provides the strength to the Item.
There are various tribal deities whom they invoke to provide relief from disease and pestilence, natural calamities and also to provide them with good harvest and bountiful forest produce. 'Sitla Devi' is offered a prayer for relief from Small pox. Hinglaji mata, Ligopen, Danteshwari Devi, Kankalin Mata are some of the tribal deities that are worshipped. These deities are beautifully represented in the Dokra Art form. Figures representing the various tribes such as the Marias, Murias, Bhatra and Durwas are also made by artisans. In addition the Gadwa artisan produces animal and birds of the Forest, and these are votive offerings to the deities, but now they adorn the classiest homes in India and Abroad.
We have in order to bring the art form closer to the modern household, dovetailed the craft to functional uses, such as Door Handles, Napkin holders, ash trays, Towel rings and Rods, Candle Holders etc.
A soft slate stone is available in plenty in the Bastar which is quarried and used by the stone artisans of the Bastar to carve very abstract and stylized figures of Tribals and their deities and these represent the votive offerings of the these simple but profound people.
A community called the Lohars has been smelting iron ore, which is available in plenty in Bastar, for centuries, especially in and around the Baila dilla hill ranges, where today there is a large Iron Ore Mine. The Iron ore is smelted in crude earthen smelters and the Iron so made is used to forge axes, sickles, arrowheads and various other items of daily use. However the most interesting items that show the sheer genius of the Tribal craftsman are the various animals and birds that they craft. They also produce very interesting lamps and narrative panels, which today are much sought after by the connoisseur of art. A note worthy feature is that the creative genius of the artisan is expressed in its fullest in the craft, which defies the most contemporary expressions in the art world of today.
In addition to the above art forms, artistic expression is evident in the most mundane of the utilities of the daily life. Bottle guard is dried and the insides scooped out, to be utilized as a water bottle. To keep the water cool and also to embellish the drab bottle guard, the Tribal covers the entire surface with a thick layer of coconut fiber and held in place with woven net of hemp and the pattern which is geometric is very appealing.
The bamboo Bow used to hunt in the forest is intricately covered with criss crossing patterns of hemp and reed to render it as an aesthetic artwork of the most ordinary utility object.
Terracotta votive figures of Narayanpur and Edka are creations of the Kumbhars and their works are now much sought after as decorative pieces for modern households, hotels and Offices. The Edka elephants are very ornamental and may have been the result of the influence of the Caparisoned elephant used to carry the Deity Danteshwary during the Dusserah festival procession held every year in Jagdalpur. The various animals and birds and heads of deities and heroes are votive offerings during festive occasions.
As one travels in Bastar, a scene, which we encounter out side, every village is that of Totem pole like wooden carved pillars stuck in the ground. They are memorials to the various Tribal heroes and chieftains. The cravings reveal interesting events in the life of the Tribals. This art has been carried forward in the contemporary times to represent those same scenes on panels for decoration and on furniture items. Figures of Bison Horn Maria drummers and Maria female in the dancing pose is oft repeated theme, which is finely crafted in the woodcarvings of Bastar.
From the time that I first encountered the art forms of Bastar about 25 years ago and what it is today, a sea change has occurred, some for the good and some bad. The good is that the various art forms have been brought to limelight and marketed all over the world, and the social and economical status of the Artisans has improved a lot. However due the unscrupulous dealers and touts, in order to attract foreign clients, The craftsmen have been pressurized to adopt crudest expression in the design content of the artifacts. It is mistakenly believed by these self-serving dealers that the cruder and grotesque the design, the greater the attraction by the foreign customer. So much so that some of the art forms are unrecognizable. This corruption of the crafts is pathetic and deserves condemnation.
My effort is to revive the pristine nature of the traditional craft and let the artisan evolve naturally with out external pressures.