In this section we have time and again featured artisans who have dedicated their lives to an art form. A few have tried to engage and uplift not only the art form but also the artisans involved. Sushil Sakhuja belongs to the latter category.
“The Bastar region is a district of Chhattisgarh in Central India. Apart from housing the Nagarnar and Tata steel plants which are well known here, the region is also home to tribes who specialise in Dhokra handicraft…and this is their story,” says Sushil on a starting note.
Sushil was inspired by Dhokra quite early, back in 1982, when the Government of India made an attempt of saving this fading art form by engaging selected artists and designers – the well-known designer Joghi Panghal also visited Bastar at this time. Seeing him work with local artisans attracted Sushil to Dhokra Art. He felt that finally he had chanced upon what he would like to actively engage in. Sushil regularly started participating in his workshops, besides Panghal, he also acquired training in Dhokra art form from yet another prominent Dhokra artist, Shobharam Sagar.
The traditional art of Dhokra has been practised across a number of states in India like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bengal. These creations which are made using the lost wax process were initially utilised to make creations for gifting in temples and centres of faith.
These creations were primarily the handiwork of old people of a specific tribe. In return for their quintessential creations the artists were given food grains or felicitated with an award.
As time passed, the price of bronze which is the primary material put to use in Dhokra, became costly, besides the day to day use of bronze also diminished. This in turn motivated the artist to look for other avenues of work. In a fast moving world the time and effort required to make a Dhokra art piece was also another factor which led to the decline of this craft.
The decline of Dhokra cautioned well-wishers of this art form who decided to preserve it. One idea was to open a museum and house the existing art pieces which were accessible. In order to maintain the continuity of the art form one of the prominent questions which came to the fore was how to engage young people in an art form which was primarily the knowhow of the old.
As Sushil got more entrenched with this art form, he too realised that it was heading towards extinction. Keeping this reality in mind, Sushil actively started working with the artisans to ensure the art form survives. As he worked in unison with the artists he amalgamated the craft of Dhokra with different materials like iron and clay.
A new era heralded the beginning of this fading art and craft. The artisans and craftsmen became actively engaged in Dhokra, even women folk started getting involved. Erstwhile alcoholics now had a constructive activity to pursue.
The art of Dhokra involves a number of steps beginning with the creation of the basic mould using sand and clay. The wax preparation thereafter involves the use of pure bee-wax, found in abundance in the jungles where these craftsmen reside. This is followed by channel building and crucible filling, both these steps requires the use of a furnace. The type of furnaces utilised varies according to the place of origin of the artisan. The nature of fuel too differs from wood (green and dry) to charcoal, cow-dung cake, coal, etc.
The initial doubt was that urbanites may not take a liking for a rural art form – but the response was otherwise. Sushil was greatly appreciated for his work by a number of notable names which included the late M.F. Hussain and patrons like Parmeshwar Godrej. The Government of India too felicitated him on a number of occasions.
With an aim to keep the artisans and their family in-sync with contemporary times, Sushil introduced them to the world of computers and the internet. “The response was certainly positive and without a doubt I can say that their kids have mastered the use of these new age devices and technologies,” he says proudly.
Till date Sushil continues to stimulate the art and craft of Dhokra, besides which he has also taken a keen interest in ice sculpting and creating installations. He has exhibited his ice sculptures in Salekhard, Russia whereas his installations have generated quite a buzz in Vietnam.
Getting back to Dhokra, apart from exhibiting his pieces in India Sushil has also exhibited his Dhokra art pieces in Kunming, China. As an artist Sushil has been successful in uplifting the art form, however he laments the fact that art connoisseurs failed to map a constructive methodology to conserve this 250 year old craft.
“Though much has been written about it in last 50-60 years apart from gathering and assimilating the artefacts of this secluded art form, critics cite that it is becoming like any other artefact available in the market. I hope the experts take note of such sceptics and preserve this legacy before the artist and not the art becomes an object of inheritance,” he signs off.
Text By Vikas Bhadra