In the winding lanes of Panchgani, animals and birds take on a different sheen. The peacock by the tiny lotus pond is easily spotted, but the frogs not so much. Neither the eagle awaiting flight at the back. At Devrai, in fact, exploration leads you to Iron Man. The bust replica, jutting out of the wall, catches you unawares, but is just an example of the metallic fusion on display throughout the property. Home to craftsmen from Gadchiroli and Chattisgarh, Devrai is an art village founded by Mandakini Mathur that experiments with dhokra art.
Dhokra art is a lost wax technique dating all the way back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Of course, the most famous example of this is the dancing girl of Mohenjadaro. If you haven’t met her yet, she’s at the National Museum in Delhi. The makers of dhokra art though are spread throughout the country. The art form is said to have originated in West Bengal, and spread throughout India along with the tribesmen. It is especially prevalent in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh, where even today nature is the motif and muse for dhokra artifacts. Hence, the animal figurines, the birds and trees, and of course mythological deities is what one usually finds.
Despite the recurring motifs, the beauty of dhokra art is that no two pieces are truly alike. This is as much to do with the artist’s vision as the process, which is rather elaborate. First, a cast made of locally available raw materials – mud, rice chaff, cow dung, clay etc – which is left to dry for days. This is then layered with wax, also tar in villages since it is easier to acquire and cheaper, to create patterns and designs. On slow afternoons in the valley, it’s educational as well as mesmerizing to see the artists work the wax, but the real picture will only emerge days later. What follows is another layer of clay so the wax is sandwiched in between the two layers. Finally, the metal alloys – copper, bronze, zinc, tin etc – and placed in the firing pit, where the tar melts off and liquid metal takes its place. The clay exterior is scrubbed off to reveal the metallic piece, which is then scrubbed and polished. Google Arts has a whole section on the process as does this in-depth documentary by the Mudra Foundation.
Back at Devrai, in the tiny hill town, known for its panaromic views and idyllic climate, the craftsmen have incorporated rock into the equation along with iron, brass and other metals. “This marriage of two mediums – of metal and stone has brought a new aesthetic dimension to this traditional art form,” writes Mandakini Mathur. Sure enough, the glint of that peacock feather against the base rock is hard to forget. As are the beetle rings and a myriad other objects being crafted here. So the next time you visit Panchgani, foray in for a dose of art after picking up strawberries, jams and preserves. The centre holds workshops for those interested in learning the art form and the premises doubles up as a homestay. But you can simply walk in, sit in with the artists and get a few clicks if not some artifacts to take back. Follow it up with a trip to Bhilar, which is attempting to be India’s answer to Hay-on-Wye.