Bombay Showcase

Marrying brass and stone

Sculptures of guns; he artists cold very well have been using the real thing if they had stayed in Gadchiroli. Photos: Alisha Sett  

Five hours from Mumbai, on a hilltop overlooking the Kundaal river in Panchgani, there stands an old ficus tree with long drooping branches that form a natural cave. Ten years ago, it stood alone; most would have seen it simply as a natural wonder on a barren plot. The Mathur family sensed a space within which something could grow.

Mandakini and Atul Mathur left Mumbai a decade before they decided to buy the two acres around the ficus. Foregoing economic security, they moved to this old school town to be close to nature.

The buying of the plot marked the beginning of many things, a place of their own to call home but also an expanse on which to let loose their imaginations. Apart from a bungalow, they started planting trees, flowerbeds, laying two ponds  ( one lotus and the other water lily). Mandakini, a poet and filmmaker, began to explore how art and nature could thrive together  here, a connection she felt was breaking apart in the modern world.

Destiny brought her Suresh Pungati, a much awarded tribal artist from Gadchiroli, who had been nursing a dream of his own : to revive the dhokra art form indigenous to his tribe and find a way to support the people from his community who for decades had been torn between the Naxals and the state.

In 2008, Pungati and the Mathurs decided to create the Devrai Art Village. Their beginnings were humble, with a handful of artisans from Pungati’s village struggling to churn out dhokra sculptures. But eight years later, they have morphed into something rare: an artists’ haven and craft workshop that is also a sanctuary  for those seeking to build a life different from that of daily wage earners on the urban fringe. Every day, men and women from Gadchiroli, who have become highly skilled in dhokra, make magic out of clay in the shade of the ficus.

“I must tell you the story of this gun, because when I tell the story of Devrai I often start with this,” said Mandakini. She was standing in a front of group of 19 schoolgirls from Mumbai who had come to Panchgani to work with the craftsmen for four days to make a rock dhokra sculpture of their own (more on what rock dhokra is later). “I was in the workshop one day when I noticed a few of the apprentices whispering amongst themselves. I asked them what was happening; they showed me the gun. They had made it as a gift for Suresh Sir.”

The strange present made immediate sense to Mathur. This is what the boys had left behind, what they could have been holding if they hadn’t come to Panchgani.

When Pungati first presented his community with the idea of coming to Devrai, they were hesitant. Their culture made them naturally suspicious of urban settlements; but also, since young men out of school were expected to join the Naxals, they were afraid of the threats to their families if they left suddenly. Therefore, the first lot of trainees consisted largely of Pungati’s relatives. Their ‘disappearance’ ruffled feathers on both sides: the police were suspicious of whether they had crossed into the forest forces and the Naxals were angry that they had not joined up. In a balancing act of supreme skill, which he has now had to conduct several times, Pungati managed to convince both sides that his interest was in the preservation of a tribal craft and that by allowing people to leave they — the Naxals and the police — were doing an essential service to the community.

Sitting under the mango tree in the Mathur’s backyard, Pungati explained how he had gained their trust. “When people went back to the village, they talked about the whole process of working here, what the conditions were like, what the training was like. So everybody knew us, and lots of people started saying, ‘Take us as well, put us to work, there is no work here’. There were friends my age who said this. It was a big challenge to bring them here. There was the manpower, but where was the money? So I spoke to Teacher [Mandakini] and she said, ‘Bring them, we’ll put in a little more money. We’ll find a way’. In the second lot there were 11 people , young and old. Then the production began. The output and the platform grew.”

But Pungati and Mathur did not want to become a factory for the production of ‘tribal’ craft. They wanted ‘to create an environment that offers opportunities to explore the linkages between indigenous art and nature’, as well as cross-pollinate with ideas from the modern art world. So they encouraged the craftsmen to keep experimenting rather than just reproduce.

And two things happened. One, they began to go for walks in the forest, gathering fallen branches, flowers, leaves: anything which looked sturdy enough to be cast. Soon, the bodies of the horses and cows they were sculpting

began to take the form of these natural elements through the process of organic casting. At the same time they

started to work on other forms of fusion: brass and bamboo, brass and iron, and finally brass and rock.

This fusion between rock and brass, using the lost wax process, is what has been christened rock dhokra. The technique was extremely difficult to achieve, and it is in the process of being patented by Devrai.

The first rock dhokra sculpture was a nature goddess, her curved back fused with brass to the rock on which she lay, her wild hair overflowing in gold strands. Those familiar with dhokra know that it spreads from Bengal to Orissa, is popular in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and has been practised for centuries, producing figures of gods and heroes.

In the contemporary art world, people will remember the sculptures that Meera Mukherjee made using the same painstaking process : a mould of beeswax is covered with two layers of clay with paths left open for the molten metal to flow in and the melted wax to flow out. The image is then fired in the kiln, which must burn for several hours, and finally the cast can be cracked open for each piece to emerge, unique.

For the craftsmen, to begin imagining crude pieces of rock as a bird or a goddess or a dancer was perhaps the biggest challenge of all. But this is also what made the new form attractive: the potential connection of every element in the sculpture to the mythological, material and imaginative life of the sculptor.

In Art Objects, Jeanette Winterson’s series of essays, On Ecstasy and Effrontery, she writes, “The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way.” She emphatically states that our relationship with how the artwork has been brought into life is as important as the final object.

Our understanding of the nature of its birth is essential for the art object to move beyond being decorative or functional, for it to begin a dialogue with us that may continue for weeks or years.

And it is the idyllic setting created by the Mathurs that makes the trip to Devrai special. Because the ‘process’ is in the dry land that has been converted into a flowering forest, the slopes that are bound with vetiver, and the fragrance of angel’s trumpet that swims deep through the air.

The Devrai Art Village has a workshop and gallery that are open all year where you can understand the dhokra process and purchase products. In order to organise a workshop for your school or workplace to make sculptures of your own, contact devraiartvillage@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 11:18:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/marrying-brass-and-stone/article8662494.ece

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