Monday, March 4, 2013

Dhokra craft traditions with a reverse twist - Subhash Arora, a non-tribal dhokra craft artist

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 lucrative professions. Exploding both these usuals and going against the grain is Subhash Arora, Master Craftsman of Dhokra craft.  A non-tribal, actually a Punjabi Arora from Delhi from a family involved in educational pursuits, who was so fascinated with Dhokra that he has made it his mission, his love and career. This love for dhokra which began in the late 70s still continues today with the same passion, a journey covering nearly 35 years.  With a dreamy look in his eyes, Arora adds, “I want to do it all my life.”  So you wonder how did it all start? 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 modeling at Bal Bhawan Delhi during the holidays. I knew I wanted to do something creative. There were many options - drama, writing art…” During the training he happened to visit the Crafts Museum, Delhi. It was here that the proverbial inspiration struck, there were tribal craftsman from Chattisgarh - Bastar to be precise who had come to demonstrate Dhokra craft. Subhash Arora saw it being made and literally was hooked for life. Even as he describes it to me, the passion, the madness for the craft shines in his eyes. He adds, “I worked with them casting, modeling the wax without a care about the weather, it was the craft and myself.” When they left after their workshop for one month ended, he was at a loss. In a fit of youthful madness he decided to pack his bags and head to Bastar as he says, “I was not interested in studies.” His parents dissuaded him saying he was mad going off to a village in the jungles far away from civilization with no access to landline phones.

He vividly recalls reaching village Konda in Bastar in the evening by bus and being welcomed by fire flies everywhere. Arora adds, “I had never seen a fire flies 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 ata tha - (I used to enjoy doing the work)”. Soon he persuaded his parents to buy him a small place within the village where he could stay and learn the craft. He learnt the craft and along with it the local language - Halbi. He says as a matter of fact, “if you live in Spain for 10 years won’t you learn to speak Spanish?” adding with pride, “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 solid method. One distinguishing feature is that when casting bigger objects or three dimensional ones, the craftsman wind thin strips of wax around the clay model. They further adorn it with little drops, small motifs and more. The object when finished in metal gives a ribbed appearance which is the hallmark of dhokra. Subhash Arora shows me wax strips. 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 making it that for a moment he forgets I am watching and listening to him.

I prod him 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 dead end. No one wanted to buy the pieces I had made. 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 after a few years to Bastar. This time he stayed and made designs of his own. When he showed them to shops in Sundar Nagar, Delhi and exporters, they went crazy about it. 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 more saleable form then.” Further understanding of the design quotient occurred when he was called to repair some antique figurines by Rajeev Sethi, well known craft proponent and revivalist. He was shown a box full of old pieces of dhokra art from Kond village in Orissa. Arora says, “it was something I had never seen. The work from this village is 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 which would work in the market.

He adds ruefully, “I was young and could withstand the harsh conditions. I used to live with them for 4 - 5 months in a year. Now I can’t. So I have brought a few villagers from there and have settled them in a village near my home in Faridabad.” His worked was recognized and he was awarded the Master Craftsman Award in 1993 for a beautiful piece depicting a tribalish 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 which 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 kind are made to order. The focus now is on making utility pieces like wall hangings, key hanging boxes, trays which 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 which have fallen on the ground. Then with left over leather and grass bits.” Looking at the piece, again the dreamy look overcomes him, and he starts thinking of other ways to extend the craft to more utility driven products. I leave him at that.

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