The Hungry Gods

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In Kolkata’s craft market, Bikna village is a trade secret. Tusha Mittal meets a community that is dying in an attempt to keep the ancient craft of Dokra alive.

Photos by Arko Datto

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PERHAPS HE felt the need for humour. On a cool, otherwise ordinary afternoon, Kanloi Karmakar stopped what he was doing. He bent down, picked up the face of a dead goat and held it to his own. Then he laughed. It is an ordinary afternoon in Bikna village, 200 km from Kolkata. Sarees blow in the wind and smoke from earthen pots fogs the air. Suddenly, you have to look away. There is a man behind the hollow dead face of a goat. You cannot tell if it is a mask or a mirror.

If he could afford the raw material needed to make Dokra, perhaps Kanloi could be called an artist. His son makes Dokra as a labourer for other villagers, earning Rs 100 as daily wage. Since a staple diet isn’t always possible, the family purchases leftover parts of a goat uneaten by others. Legs, skin, face — a kilo for Rs 5. When Kanloi does make Dokra, he puts the brass pieces in a basket and walks down to Saptarshi, the nearest hotel in Bankura town. What he sells for Rs 70 is sold at the hotel’s handicraft store for Rs 250.

It is impossible to tell what the markup is in Kolkata. “These are trade secrets,” says a private store owner when asked where the Dokra comes from. “Don’t give her names of suppliers,” screams the manager of a government cottage emporium to his staff. He rushes to take charge, sees a press card, and says, “Sorry, these are trade secrets.”

Both city stores report a monthly Dokra sale worth Rs 50,000. It is no wonder then that in Kolkata’s Dokra market, Bikna itself has become a trade secret. It is one of the last enclaves of an ancient craft, one of the two villages in West Bengal where the Karmakars live and work together. The tribe is a community of metal smiths who have been making Dokra for generations, passing down the otherwise lost process of wax casting known as “cire perdue”. It dates back to Indus Valley. To Mohenjodaro. To a bronze dancing girl discovered in 1926.

At first, walking into Bikna is like entering an old, rusted factory. Vacant fumes rise from mounds of burning earth. Black liquid wax is poured onto a piece of cloth, creaseless, stretched tight over a red bowl. Groups of men and women huddle in units across the village, as if in cubicles, heads bent over brass and fire. Forty-two families live here. All are Karmakars. Some compete with the other. Some are suspicious of the other. Those who can’t afford the initial cost of raw materials depend on others. Things are produced mechanically and the air seems heavy with the absence of joy. There are targets to meet. Sixty wings a day on 60 clay birds. Sixty arms a day on 60 goddesses. For their labour, many earn Rs 100 a day, like NREGA wages. Some have chosen NREGA over Dokra because it requires less labour.

***

AT THE village entrance, under a bamboo thatch, Dilip, 23, is rolling strips of wax between his fingertips. With these, he’ll shape intricate patterns on a clay base. It is these initial wax patterns that distinguish Dokra from other brass figures. The process involves six steps. First, a clay core, a smaller replica of the desired artifact, is either sun-dried or hardened by dhalai. Then, a coating of wax is placed around the core, matching the thickness of metal desired in the final object. Upon the wax coat, there is further designing and patterning with wax itself. In the moulding stage, another clay layer is added on which the wax details beneath form impressions. This structure is then placed into a larger clay shell for dewaxing. The wax melts, leaving a cavity for molten metal. Then the casting begins. A metal alloy mainly consisting of brass is poured in to replace the wax. After the mould cools, the baked clay shell is broken to reveal the artifact inside.

In a desperate bid to raise money to marry his daughters, Amar sold artworks worth Rs 25,000 to a middleman for Rs 7,000

“No one here does anything else,” says Dilip. He wears a bandana and several gold chains. “I’ve been doing this since I was 12. I start at 8 am and work for eight hours. Then I play cricket and go to sleep. Others find this beautiful, but at times, I do not even want to look at it.”

Dilip is employed by his neighbours, the family of Gopan Karmakar. With a two-bedroom cement house, Gopan is better off. He’s been in the trade for 12 years; he calls his business ‘Laxmi Products’ named after his wife. Gopan mostly receives orders from private buyers in Bankura and the neighbouring Burdwan districts. Sometimes Kolkata.

For a Rs 20,000 order, Gopan spends about Rs 10,000 on brass, Rs 2,000 on coal, Rs 1,000 on wax and rolling amounts on daily labour. Executing the order, about 500 pieces, takes him a month with four people working all day. Usually, it leaves him with Rs 3,000 for his family of five.

“We get by, send our children to school and have meals, but that’s all,” says Gopan. In 2011, Gopan’s orders totalled Rs 2.5 lakh for the year, but the profit margin was barely 15 percent. Ten years ago, it was almost 50 percent. For every Rs 100 Gopan spent, he earned another Rs 100 back. But in the past 10 years, the prices of raw materials have skyrocketed. “The brass I bought for Rs 75, I now buy for Rs 300. I can’t convince the customer to pay that much more,” he adds.

That is why Gopan doesn’t want his son Gautam to learn the craft. “I want my son to do something else,” he says, Maybe he’ll work at a lead factory.” Gautam, 11, listens in disapproval. One morning, he woke up to see his mother making a mould of Ganesh. He imitated. When his parents shooed him away, he offered the younger men a bribe to learn more — a few packets of Chutki.

Unchanged The clay base from which Dokra is made
Unchanged: The clay base from which Dokra is made

***

AT FIRST, Bikna is like an old, rusted factory. Things are in motion, yet stagnant. By the end of a day in Bikna, you begin to wonder what about this is art, what makes this process creative? You dismiss the question as blasphemous. Perhaps it is enough to be keeping alive an ancient craft. To be mirroring the motifs of ancestors in earth and brass. But must Bikna too bear the burden of renewed creation, of contemporary engagement? It is then that Amar Karmakar makes an appearance. It is in him that you first sense the kind of abrasion that makes art. Toothpick tucked behind his ears, he’s been watching silently. “Would you buy this?” he asks. Something in his voice is not right — irreverence, resentment, perhaps anger. If you let him lead you inside his hut and hold up a flickering candle beneath a wooden bed, what is not right will become clear.

Last note A Dokra figurine
Last note: A Dokra figurine

Amar is angry. There are things he wants to say. He cannot buy the brass and wax he needs to articulate the things he wants to say. “Look at my house. Will a bank give me a loan? To make the kind of art I really want to make, I need Rs 3 lakh just for raw material.” What he wants to make lies in half-finished clay moulds under his bed. A woman’s foot with her toes curled upward, “this is the woman breaking the old shackles”. A depiction of Matangini Hazra, a freedom fighter from Bengal, with her feet on the bodies of British soldiers. And there’s his response to 26/11: “I wanted to make something after I heard about the Maoist attack on Mumbai.” He holds up five wide fingers, a palm of clay. “I want to carve a story on each finger. It could be five religions or five continents. Or perhaps, it could mean, I’m so fed up, I’m putting up my hands ready to fight.”

Soon the phrases are a rapid spew. “Katha.” “Everything is about story.” “Only people who understand story should buy my art.” “I don’t want a job. I want to do this. But there is no market. And there’s no government support. If I go outside, the police stops us. I was on a train to Bhopal once, carrying a bag of Dokras. The police made me get off and checked my bags for bombs.”

In this last village of Dokra, Amar Karmakar may be one of its last artists. “I get some orders, but no advance,” he says. “People don’t trust us.” Last year, in a desperate bid to raise money to marry his daughters, he sold products worth Rs 25,000 to a middleman for Rs 7,000. “We can see how the dalals exploit us, but we have no choice. They come to us when we are at our weakest.”

***

BY THE end of the day, Bikna begins to reveal the same contradictions, the same faultlines: there is Geeta Karmakar, 40, the village’s most successful artist. Her cement house boasts a newly acquired computer. Her son is learning how to put up images of her work online, so she can “connect with international buyers easily”. Geeta won the National Merit Award for handicrafts thrice in a row. Three years ago, she was the only one in the village to avail a Rs 2.5 lakh loan under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme. This allowed her to get orders from the cottage emporia of the West Bengal and Central government.

For a few years, she got orders worth Rs 6 lakh annually. It allowed her to employ 20 families in the village. Suddenly, in 2009, there were no more orders from Manjusha, the West Bengal government’s handicraft unit. Suddenly, Geeta had become competition for Galaxy Exports, a local company in Burdwan district that sells Dokra, often buying from Bikna itself. From employees at Manjusha, Geeta learnt that gold polish was the only difference between her products and Galaxy’s. She learnt where to make her Dokra glaze. Soon, she was able to offer Manjusha the same gold-plated Dokra for a lower price. In a bizarre twist, “Galaxy complained that I’d bribed Manjusha’s staff to secure orders,” Geeta laughs. “They filed a case against me. I don’t know what it said. After that, Manjusha doesn’t buy from me.”

But Manjusha says it continues to buy “from the artists.” When TEHELKA contacted Manjusha, employees insisted that there are no middlemen. “We are a government unit. Our primary motive is to help the artists.” Yet, Bikna villagers say Manjusha has bought nothing since 2009. Further contradicting Manjusha, Galaxy Exports – the middleman – itself confirmed to TEHELKA that the government is one of their main clients.

Despite no government orders, Geeta has secured work by visiting handicraft fairs across India. Her proudest possession is a potted cactus plant with mythological figures telling a story in a series of six leaves. She presented this at an exhibition in Delhi. “No one wanted to buy it at the price I wanted, so I brought it back,” she says. She wanted Rs 5,500. It’d bring a profit of Rs 1,500. It is the most expensive item in her repertoire.

***

ON THE other side of Geeta’s home, Bulu Karmakar is scavenging for leftover pieces of brass that she will resell. She lives in a tent of blue plastic, and blames Geeta for it, “Earlier, she gave us work. Now, we’ve nothing. I don’t know how she gets the big orders. She keeps everything for herself.”

In the distance, Judhu Karmakar, 60, is lying asleep, the oldest, and perhaps the most content, man of the village. Years of smoke from Dokra-making have left him near blind. Ask Judhu what he’s proudest of and he pauses. The owl, perhaps. He was the first in the village to create the Dokra owl. He was lazing outside his hut one morning in the 1970s, when he saw an owl fly away. It was instantly turned into clay and brass. He also created the Dokra tortoise and fish. In 1988, he travelled to Delhi to receive an award from the President. “When I was young, we’d take Dokra pieces on a basket on our heads and wander around, asking people to buy,” he says. “Now, things are much better. At least, people come here to give orders.” He has only one grouse: the old-age pension he was promised has not yet come.

By evening, the cubicles empty out, children scream in the village courtyard and the Dokra-makers gather to play in yellow fields. By evening, Bikna becomes itself again: a village trying merely to sustain itself, with the only thing it knows how to do. Perhaps, by evening, it is neither mask nor mirror. Perhaps, by evening, the dead goat has been eaten.

 

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
tusha@tehelka.com

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