The eco-smiths of Bastar
HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER
At last ... these were how these striking figurines are made. And there was no "secret ritual" involved.
"`Why do you decorate them in this manner?' we asked. `And why do you use bean leaves and termite mud?' But before he could reply, he was called away to answer the phone. Before we left, however, cradling the figurine we had bought, we had a last question for him ... ."
PHOTO: HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER
METAL GUARDIANS: In Baghel's compound, a row of finished metal figures.
WE first saw them at the Bastar Gate in Suraj Kund.
Every year, Haryana organises a Crafts Mela in Suraj Kund. Here, crafts-people from all over our land assemble to display their skills and sell their products. And, every year, a particular craft has a gate erected in its honour. In our opinion, the Bastar Gate was particularly striking: it was powerful, primitive and most intriguing. "Are they wire sculptures?" we asked, noting the successive lines that decorated the metal guardians of a tribal goddess. To our disappointment the only reply we got was "They are made in some sort of secret ritual in the deep tribal heartland." The metal smiths from Bastar had, apparently, taken the day off. We filed our question away in our minds hoping that some time we would be able to see the artisans at work for ourselves.
Our patience paid off. Many months later we did visit Chattisgarh, drove 80 kilometres out of Raipur, the State capital, and visited the village of Kondagaon now absorbed into the town of Bhelwapadar. There we met award-winning sculptor Rajendra Baghel and learnt all we could about his fascinating, eco-friendly, craft.
His "workshop" spreads across the yard of his cottage and under two sheds at the far end. A haze of fragrant wood-smoke rose from his furnace; workers sawed and hammered metal, others worked meticulously on figurines which had been rough cast. A man wrapped what seemed to be fat thread around another small sculpture. Two women made a mixture of red earth and crushed leaves. Baghel's pretty wife, Savitri, prepared an aromatic curry of coriander leaves, onions and potatoes. And curiously, there was a pile of discarded torch cases, motor parts and other metal scrap piled in one corner. A bare-bodied worker, patched with soot, squatted at the scrap pile, picking and choosing carefully. Against the wall of Baghel's compound stood a row of finished metal figurines: as attenuated, and retro-modern, as those of Amadeo Modigliani.
Here, at long last, we learnt how these striking figurines are made. There was no "secret ritual" involved !
Rajendra Baghel accompanied us as we picked our way around his establishment. At one spot, people were working on a plasticine-like substance exuding the strong aroma of honey. "That's beeswax," Baghel explained. "We get it from the forest. Here we make the first models of the figurines. Beeswax is very easy to handle." A small figure of a thin old man was taking shape under the swift fingers of one of the craftsmen. We stepped forward. A worker was spreading a black, tacky, mush on another wax model. "That's a mixture of field clay kneaded with rice husk," Baghel explained. "The rice husk binds it for the first firing. In the furnace, the wax melts, flows out through these two channels, and turns into gas." The "lost wax" process has been used by metal-crafters worldwide for many centuries. "Then," said Baghel, "we pour molten metal into the hollow mould left by the evaporated wax."
The metal figurines that emerge from the mould are rough, indented with the texture of the clay. "Now we have to cut and chisel them, making them smooth, bringing out their features."
"Is that it?" we asked. "Is that all there is to it?"
Baghel smiled. "No. That worker is now dusting the figures with powdered metal to fill in the pits and cracks in them. And then he is wraps them in river clay before firing them again." The clay was black and glistened with tiny particles of silica. Silica is one of the basic materials of sand and it forms glass when it fuses. Here the silica probably gives a sheen to the metal sculptures.
At the sunlit front of the shed, an artisan sat cross-legged on the ground, a low table before him. Baghel said, "He is winding wax, drawn into long threads, around the figures. He will then encase them in a paste of bean leaves and clay taken from termite mounds, and bake them again." Now we realised that what we had thought was wire sculpture was really ridges created by metal flowing into regular lines left by the melted wax threads.
"Why do you decorate them in this manner?" we asked. "And why do you use bean leaves and termite mud?" But before he could reply, he was called away to answer the phone.
Before we left, however, cradling the figurine we had bought, we had a last question for him. "Where do you get your metal from, Rajendra?" He smiled, "From the kabari-wallahs, the scrap dealers." He nodded towards the pile of metal junk. "We use what other people throw away ... "
Baghel and his team create beautiful retro-art from recycled waste. This is why we call them the Eco-smiths of Bastar.
Send this article to Friends by