India, my Love|Sep 3, 2006 11:41 AM| by:

Sculpting the Past with the Present

“A small bronze statuette of a dancing girl in the buried city of Mohenjo Daro in Sind shows that the process of lost wax [cire perdue] was known to India some 5000 years ago”, says historian Chintamani Kar [ ‘Indian Metal Sculpture’, London, 1952].

In keeping with its penchant to astonish anyone who cares to look, India is home to this art even today. The art draws its grammar from ancient Sanskrit verses, connects with modern life, sustains a robust economy and promises to thrive on.

The capital of the lost wax metal casting is the town of Swamimalai, about 8 km from Kumbakonam, in the Thanjavoor [Tanjore] district. For 350 years a clan of Sthapathys have nurtured this art and helped it to survive . They claim descent from Viswa Karma, the emissary of Brahma, sent to support man’s endeavours in this world. But the Sthapathys are not some secret guild keeping others out. They have helped found and run a school in Swamimalai that teaches this craft. We shall see how this unbroken thread, beginning in the early mists of time wrapped in myths and legends, is to be found today as a vigourous industry, maintaining high standards of aesthetics and quality.

    Finest Clay

Vijayanagar Empire had sustained fine arts and crafts and lasted for 300 years. Its court was a patron to thousands of artists in various fields. When it finally broke up in 1640, the Sthapathys, among other artists and scholars, were scattered everywhere. From a small settlement of them in Senji near Chennai [Madras] came Devasenapathy’s ancestor. A Nayak [ a minor king], had sought him out for casting icons for temples. The famous granite temples of Thanjavoor had been in place for over 500 years, and the art of metal casting was now to make its home here. Devasenapathy Sthapathy is the oldest living descendant of the clan.

“My ancestor found on the banks of river Cauvery, near Swamimalai, a clay so fine that it will reproduce the clearest of finger prints!”, says he. Also when fired, it did not crack. So the Sthapathys decided to settle and set shop. It was an era of great temple building activity and icons were in demand both for temples and homes. Kingly patronage gave the Sthapathys a high social standing and they went on to create a great cultural enterprise.

Devasenapathy Sthapathy’s mind moves effortlessly between the mythical and the modern. He is an artist decorated by the national government, has travelled as far as London and heads a profitable export business, but he remains connected with his belief system.
Start with Rig Veda!

And his dictates begin in divine texts!

Rig Veda refers to lost wax casting technique as ‘maduchchista vidhana’. And Manushya Purana, another hoary text, refers to Viswa Karma’s five skills as those of, Manu [ iron monger], Maya [wood worker], Twastha [vessel maker], Viswajhan [gold smith] and Silpi [ icon maker]. A practitioner may call himself a Sthapathy if he is proficient in at least 3 of the five skills.

Lost wax [cire perdue, in French] bronze casting falls under Silpa Shastra and has its established grammar, tools, techniques and metallurgy.

Let’s quickly run through the steps: First the figure is hand moulded in hard wax. The finished wax figure is encased in clay and sun dried. Then the clay case is heated to melt and drain the wax. Into the hollow space, molten alloy is poured. The rough cast is finally hand finished and polished. Single pieces can weigh over 2 tonnes and stand upwards of 15 feet!

Moulding the wax figure is done from memory and given that Hindu gods and savants number in the hundreds and have their immutable characteristics, the scale of the task can be imagined with some effort!

    Palm Leaf Scale and Allegories

The sculptor first makes a measuring tape out of a ribbon of coconut palm leaf, about half an inch wide and a length exactly equal to the height of the intended figure. He then folds it in units of 1/124 equal parts. The parts of the anatomy are defined in terms of this unit, like say brow = 3 units, the circumference of the bosom =18 units and so on. The creased palm ribbon is kept in a bowl of water and preserved until the figure is done.

That’s about measure. As for the aesthetics of the image, a sculptor is aided by poetic allegories in the verses. The head is to resemble a hen’s egg; the eyebrow is to be curved like a neem leaf; the eye shall be patterned on a small and fast swimming fish; the ear is defined by the edges of a lily bloom; the nose shall remind you of a sesame flower; the upper lip, a bow; the lower, a ripe tinda; the chin, a small mango pit; the neck, the flutes of a shell; the torso , a cow’s head; arm, the fall of an elephant’s trunk; thighs, the lower trunk of a banana plant; knee, a crab and leg, a large fish!

This is not to mean that there is no freedom for the artist. Devasenapathy Sthapathy says, “An artist sits and moulds the wax meditating on his subject. He remembers legends and deeds, prescriptions and rules but finally it’s a unique piece. No two images are ever identical. There may even be delightful little errors of detail but never one that inhibits affection and veneration.”

  Rajan, a Rare Product

Devasenapathy Sthapathy himself does not create non-ecclesiastical images. In fact when mortals are cast, they are accorded only the coarser 1/8 unit for details. But secular works are indeed created and the practitioners today are not all descended from the clan of Sthapathys.

The state government runs a school in Swamimalai which admits about 15 students once every three years. The Sthapathys have helped found the school and transfer the techniques to the teachers there. Since 1957, about 150 skilled craftsmen have passed out and set up workshops all over India.

A remarkable modern product of this ancient stream is, Rajan. A man in his forties, he was born as one of nine in the family of a traditional stone sculptor, whose family moved from Kerala to Tiruchi about 150 years ago. Rajan had completed his pre university studies when he decided to break from the family trade and study metal casting in Swamimalai. The family disowned him, but he fought his way through. “I did face opposition from a few local people in Swamimalai, but there were many others who supported me.”

Rajan Industries, located in the outskirts of Swamimalai, is a large premises from where about 42 skilled workers are engaged in putting out products worth Rs.7.5 million annually! Tradition is adhered to but modern marketing is practiced.

There is nothing traditional about Rajan’s mental makeup, though he lives and works in traditionalist Swamimalai: he is a bachelor who thinks marriage will come in the way of his work. He gives away 25% of his profits to local charities, has bequeathed his business to his workers and builds a house every year for a worker [current score, 6]. He is widely travelled, speaks four languages including fluent English! He paints, does magic shows for children and surfs the net!

Thus, Swamimalai! Not atypical of modern India, where several layers co-exist: an ancient one, one of hard-nosed business and another of social transformation; each expected to be in conflict with the other, but on closer look, reasonably harmoniously connected.

    (This article was taken from GoodNewsIndia is dedicated to little known stories of positive action and is published by D. V. Sridharan)

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