Chhattisgarh’s hinterlands are a treasure trove of artistic talent, ranging from Bastar’s mud art to Raigarh’s bellmetal sculptures. Ektaal, a village 17 km off Raigarh, is home to national award winners and international representatives of indigenous art. These Adivasis (as they call themselves) of the Jhara community are carrying on the proud tradition of bellmetal art handed down by their forefathers.
Using an alloy of bronze, copper and tin that is traditionally used to make bells, these artists make intricate decorative figures. Moulds made of mud are covered with thread made of beeswax forming the shape that the craftsman wants. This is covered with smooth mud and left to dry, after which heat is applied to the article, resulting in the melting of the wax. Into the hollow space is poured the molten metal, which takes the shape of the design made by the wax. The mud is then hollowed out of the article.
Unfortunately, only 15 out of the 120 families of the Jhara community are still involved in this artistic trade, a portent of the slow dying of our indigenous heritage.
A sense of hopelessness prevails among the few practitioners of this art — but they are not devoid of pride. Ghosts of glorious moments lurk behind the shadows of tired eyes. Ram Lal Jhara, 56, sits at the back of the group of artists with trembling hands. After harnessing enough courage he proudly claims, “I have been to Italy to represent India for metal art.”
Ram Lal was awarded the National Award in the year 1998 for a sculpture of Ramayana made of bell metal. He has also been anointed with the state award for his depiction of a hunter-gatherer society’s lifestyle through his craft.
The women of this community have also made their mark. A pioneer among them is Budhiyarin Bai Jhara, who won the National Award in 2002. The state award followed in 2011, given to her by the then governor of Chhattisgarh Shekhar Dutt. However, the memory of her laurels is fast dimming in the constant worry about meeting household expenses.
As one enters her house, one can see remnants of the craft lying around. The pride of place is is given to a waist-high carriage made by her husband that seats 100 goddesses. Her husband Uday Ram Jhara, himself a national awardee, still glories in his talent. “I have been to France and I have been awarded six times,” he says. When asked for a picture of his trip to France, Uday Ram replies, “Wahan kaun kheechega humra photo? (Who will take our pictures there?)”
Apart from Uday and his wife Budhiyarin, Ektaal’s corners are full of stories of high levels of achievement, with approximately 35 state award winners and seven national awardees. Another couple, Dhani Ram Jhara and his wife, have a rich legacy of family awardees. He explains, “My father Govind Ram Jhara was the first one to be awarded nationally.” Govind Ram has also been given the Shikhar Award and the Shilp Guru Award, besides representing the country in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. Dhani Ram has carried forward his father’s trade and is himself a national awardee.