When metal casting techniques from history find contemporary expression in jewellery.
I Remember studying about the 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-daro dancing girl in my school history class. Little did I know then that I’d be working with the same lost wax technique years later, to design jewellery.
Dhokra (bell metal)—an alloy of nickel, brass and zinc—is made using the wax casting technique, one of the earliest known methods of metal casting. The dhokra damar are metal smiths of West Bengal, who extend to Jharkhand and Orissa, too. About two years ago, I took a train to Bhubaneshwar to conduct Zola’s first-ever design intervention workshop with them. I realised that the beads are shaped and fired by the men, while the women strung them into jewellery. Dr AC Sahoo, a historian and art curator, showed me his exclusive collection of rare tribal jewellery from Odisha, some of the pieces over a 100 years old. It was interesting to learn how a tadao (silver arm band with spikes) was worn by women for protection and how a sipna (scissor-shaped hair clip) doubled up as a tool to chop branches when they ventured into the forests.
Another metal alloy I worked with was the Aranmulakannadi (Aranmula mirror), from the eponymous village in Kerala. It is made of a handmade metal alloy—consisting of copper and tin—with a secret formula that is fiercely guarded by the five to six families that still make it the old-fashioned way. Raju, an artisan at the workshop I conducted, tells me that a huge amount of perseverance and patience goes into the making of the mirror. “Mud from the local paddy fields is used for the mould, into which the molten alloy mix is poured to cast the mirror (considered one among the eight auspicious items that make up a Kerala bride’s trousseau, and considered to bring good luck)”, he explains. Being a metal-alloy mirror, it eliminates secondary reflections typical of back-surface mirrors with silver coating. The mirror received a geographical indication (GI) tag in 2004-05.
While working with these two forms, I learnt about the bronze casting done in Swamimalai, in Tanjore. For 350 years, a clan of Sthapathys, of the Vishwakarma community, have nurtured this art. An unlike the Aranmula clan, they are not a secret guild; in fact, they have set up schools to teach the craft. Gita Ram, my mentor and chairperson of the Crafts Council of India, tells me that while the artisans cannot get as creative as the dhokra damar (their figures don’t have proportions), they make interesting artifacts for your home.
Dhokra collection: Zola’s line includes brass, copper and white metal beads made by the dhokra damar tribes, along with kutia and koya combs—by the Kutia Kondh and Koya tribes—that have been used in a range of necklaces and earrings.
Aranmula Collection: The line consists of smaller versions of the mirror—polished for several days to achieve its reflective surface—incorporated into jewellery, as pendants and earrings.