The exceptional craftsmanship of a wavering community in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh
Indian crafts are famous for their authentic look of antiquity, with every piece suggesting its association to the rich cultural past. The crafts and products of bell metal casting are known to all, but their history and production is still obscure due to lack of coverage. The village Tikamgarh, situated in Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh specializes in traditional craft making, Bell metal casting.
Bell metal casting is the use of wax and brass to make beautifully intricate objects. This art has been practiced for three to four centuries, where these crafts were used to beautify palaces and temples. Since then, these objects have been employed as utilities of daily life. They appear in traditional households in various forms of elaborate door knobs, curtain holders, lamps, bells, jewelry etc.
Under the Hindu caste system, crafting was assigned to the Soni community, also known as the Goldsmiths. The workshops being situated at homes has made sure that the practice is permeable to the family members, and is passed down through observation from an early age. Both women and men from the family partake in crafting, and even the children contribute. Now, however, any one with the skills and resources can join the industry.
He explained, that the process starts with making a mixture of mud and cow-dung, and then grinding it according to the required estimate of 75% mud (peeli mitti) with 25% of Cow- dung (gobar). A rough mould of the required structure is made from this mixture, after which it’s dried off and given more finished shape by scrubbing. A mixture of bees wax and ash is prepared separately and then heated. This malleable wax is flattened out on a wooden surface, and is used to cover the mud structure and create the required intricate designs on it, which replicates the end product. Afterwards, the wax designsare covered with a layer of black sand (bajri), to stiffen the design.
To get a firsthand understanding of craft making and its history, I proceeded to interview several artists, and observed their skillful art in their workshop. The first artist I visited was the exceptionally talented, Mr. Ashok Kumar Soni, who has represented Tikamgarh’s traditional crafts aboard in Dubai. He helped us understand the process of making these beautiful crafts.
Once the ideal structure is finished, it is heated in a furnace, where the wax melts away through an opening and gives way to molten peetal (brass) to replace it. The molten brass settles in the ideal shape and cools off. After three hours of cooling, the mud layers are splintered and taken off to reveal the final product. The products are later oxidizedfor an antique appearance. A single piece takes 10 days to be completed.
As the name suggests, Bell metal casting began with the purpose of creating bells to adorn temples, but with time, it has found its place everyday life. Mr. Soni and other artisans have made sure that their talents expands and goes beyond the service of only few.As culture affects art and vice-versa, demand for popular product like womens anklets (ghunsi) has decreased, and is now counted as antique products. The industry keeps incorporating the cultural changes, without overlooking its roots and aesthetic investment.
Next, I visited Mr.Panna Lal Soni’s workshop, who is the son of a very renowned artisan Mrs. Ram Kali Soni. He elaborated on the financial condition of the industry and explained, that the demand for these crafts comes for various purposes like wedding gifts, interior decoration, as well idols of god for temples; but the greatest sources of profit are national and international exhibitions. However, because of the recent demonetization in India, their sales in exhibitions have suffered a downfall.
This already wavering community has to encounter barriers of constant discouragement induced by corruption and poverty.All the artisans have had unsatisfying experiences with the dishonest system.They face a constant state of struggle to look after their needs, while also being devoted towards their art. The systematic marginalization has rendered them hopeless in terms of investing in larger profitable projects. The lack of funds and aid provided by the government are just some of the barriers that obstruct the industry from growing, and limiting those who wish to utilize their education in other domains.Several artisans have either completely quit this industry due to lack of material or moral impetus, or to carry out other part-time jobs to run their households.
Reduced from hundreds, to just a handful of families in crafting, these artisans are still dedicated to their art and still maintain their flair by constant hard work. It is because of their devotion towards the practice, that this exceptionally intricate Bundeli art is still embedded and significant in our everyday life and will be indispensable for years to come.