Craft traditions are usually hereditary, passed down from one generation to the next. It is also usual for successive generations, on becoming affluent, to move away from the craft into more educated and lucrative professions. But Subhash Arora has gone against the grain.

A non-tribal, actually a Punjabi Arora from Delhi and from a family involved in educational pursuits, Subhash was so fascinated with dhokra that he has made it his mission, his love and his career. This love for dhokra, which began in the late 1970s, continues with the same passion, nearly 35 years later. With a dreamy look in his eyes, Arora adds, “I want to do it all my life.”  

So you wonder how it all started. With a smile he says, “I was not good at studies, so I didn’t have much choice except to take up graduation by correspondence. I was studying clay modelling at Bal Bhawan, Delhi, during the holidays. I knew I wanted to do something creative. There were many options — drama, writing, art…”

Off to the jungles

During the training he happened to visit the Crafts Museum, Delhi. Here, the proverbial inspiration struck; there were tribal craftsman from Chattisgarh — Bastar to be precise — who had come to demonstrate dhokra craft. Subhash Arora was hooked for life. Even as he describes it, the passion, the madness for the craft shines in his eyes. He says, “I worked with them during the casting, modelling the wax. It was the craft and me.” When the workshop ended after a month, he was at a loss. In a fit of youthful madness he decided to pack his bags and head to Bastar. He says, “I was not interested in studies.” His parents dissuaded him saying he was mad to go to a village in the jungles far away from civilisation with no access to phones.

Subhash vividly recalls reaching the village Konda in Bastar in the evening by bus and being welcomed by fireflies. He adds, “I had never seen fireflies or a jungle, let alone live in one. One look at the craft and he forgot the heat, absence of electricity, the bad civic conditions and the huts. As he says, “Kaam karte hue mazaa aata tha (I used to enjoy doing the work).” Soon he persuaded his parents to buy him a small place in the village where he could stay and learn the craft. He learnt the craft and, along with it, the local language — Halbi.

He says matter-of-factly, “If you live in Spain for 10 years, won’t you learn to speak Spanish? The whole of Bastar knows me because I am the only non-tribal who learnt the craft living with them, speaking their language and understanding their culture.” He stayed with them for four years, understanding every aspect of their life and, of course, the craft. It was not easy and it took much persuasion to be taught their skills.

Dhokra craft uses the traditional lost wax method to fashion objects from brass. The casting is done by both the hollow method and the solid method. One distinguishing feature is that when casting bigger objects or three-dimensional ones, the craftsmen wind thin strips of wax around the clay model. They further adorn it with little drops and small motifs. The object, when finished in metal, gives a ribbed appearance; the hallmark of dhokra. Describing the making of a small bull, he plucks out a small bit of wax and moulds it in front of me. He then demonstrates the making of a tile made of dhokra, he starts fashioning the leaves and becomes so lost in it that, for a moment, he forgets I am watching and listening to him.

His own designs

I prod Subhash to go back to his days of learning the craft. He recalls, “I came back satisfied with some objects that had been made. Then I reached a dead end. No one wanted to buy the pieces. I had made what the tribals made.” After much running around he gave up. He then absorbed what was selling in the market and, with a vague idea, made a second trip to Bastar after a few years. This time he stayed and made designs of his own. When he showed them to exporters and to owners of shops in Sundar Nagar, Delhi, they went crazy. Looking back he says, “I was neither a designer nor an art student. So designing was alien to me. I could not extend the use of this technique to a more saleable form then.”

Further understanding of design occurred when Rajeev Sethi, the well-known craft proponent and revivalist, called Subhash was called to repair some antique figurines. He was shown a box full of old pieces of dhokra art from Kond village in Odisha. Subhash says, “It was something I had never seen. The work was far more beautiful than that of Bastar. But seeing it I knew how to create modern, more acceptable, forms for the market.”

So out came a trail of horses, classic bulls, human figures, gods and goddesses, odd or free-flowing forms of animals, birds. He went back, lived with the tribals training them to make products that would work in the market. He adds ruefully, “I was young and could withstand the harsh conditions. I used to live with them for four or five months in a year. Now I can’t. So I have brought a few villagers and settled them in a village near my home in Faridabad.”

His work was recognised and he was awarded the Master Craftsman Award in 1993 for a beautiful piece depicting a tribal rider on a bull. Another stunning work has been for the INA Metro Gallery, where a wooden frame adorned with metal dhokra pieces was made for the CWG 2010. Another fabulous piece is a part of the Akshara Exhibition put together by Dastkari Haat Samiti. It shows a lady working on a computer, saluting learning. Every detail from the key board to the expression on the face is captured to perfection.

Given the high cost of metal, huge pieces or one-of-a-kinds are made to order. The focus now is on making utility pieces like wall hangings, key-hanging boxes, trays that contrast fallen leaves with dhokra panels. He adds, “Dhokra is an eco-friendly craft since it reuses scrap metal pieces. I teamed it with leaves that have fallen on the ground, then with leftover leather and grass bits.” Looking at the piece, again, the dreamy look overcomes him. Is he thinking of other ways to extend his craft to more utility driven products? I leave him at that.