Introduction to metal crafts

Even from early times the craftsmen of India have been known to be masters of metal. Their knowledge of metallurgy pre-dates technologies of many other civilisations and their skill at working metals is surpassed by few others. The traditional metal workers knew his medium so well that he could, indeed, be said to have been able to mix and match them and create alloys to suit every function. Not only that, but to fashion them so as to convey delight and create objects of enduring beauty.

The Artesania Arts & Crafts, is located in Bangalore India, showcasing the artistic heritage of South India and it is also an outlet for everyone to come and choose from the wide variety of handicrafts from South India.

The making of metal craft

“ The most perfect representation of rhythmic movement in art ” is how August Rodin described the bronze icons of south India


The bronze icons of south India are cast by what is called the cire perdue (cire-wax; perdue-lost) process. It is a term used for all types of casting where the wax model which is the core of the image is drained out and replaced by metal in the actual casting.

A distinctive feature of this process is that each image is unique as each casting requires a fresh mould. It is the transformation of the wax form into a metal image that is the crux of the whole process. This delicate stage takes place within the dark interior of the mould, untouched and unseen by the craftsmen, in the time between the draining out of the wax replica and the introduction of the molten metal.

This is a period of extreme anxiety for the artisan as unlike other art forms such as painting or stone carving, where the artist is continually in touch with his work; in the cire perdue technique he loses physical contact with his creation exactly at the moment when it comes into being.

Broadly there are two processes by which the replacement takes place solid casting (Ghana) and hollow casting (sushira). Both process belongs to a very old craft tradition - there is even a reference to it in the Rig Veda. While the technique of solid casting is predominant in the south, mainly in Swamimalai, Ttiruchi, Madurai, Chenglepet, Salem in Tamilnadu, Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka, Palghat in Kerala and Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh, hollow casting is largely prevalent in central and eastern India.

The most elaborate treatise on the lost wax process of metal casting is the Shilapasastra believed to have been compiled in the Gupta period. In general, the metal casters of south India follow the principles laid down in these Shilapasastras, Tamil and Malayalam versions of which are being used as technical manuals by the craftsmen in Tamilnadu and Kerala. The composition and preparation of the different metals to be used for casting, the measurements and relative proportions of the different parts of the icon, the method of preparing the wax model, making the mould and the casting are all laid down in the Shilapasastra.

The unit of measurement in icon making is 'tala; which is the distance between the hairline and the end of the lower jaw. Each "tala" is divided into 12angulas(breadth of a finger) and each angula into 8 yava(size of a grain of barley) and so on till the smallest measurement "paramu" which is smaller than the end of a single hair.

The icons are divided into 10 categories according to their length measured in terms of "tala" units. The largest icons belong to the das tala category and the smallest to the das tala. Within each category again there are 3 measures uthama, madhyama and adhama. The size of the icons is not arbitrarily decided. The Shilapasastras lay down measurements in which the icons of different deities are to be cast.

In addition to the proportionate vertical dimensions(total length of icon, length of forehead, length of face from eye to chin, length of neck, from neck to nipple, nipple to navel down to length of hand from wrist to tip of middle finger), other dimension like pramana (breadth of image) ummana (thickness or depth of image), parimana (circumference of various parts), upamana (relative of measurement of the different body from each other and from the line of axis), lambana (measurement of the surface elevation of the different parts) are also given.

It is interesting to note that each part of the anatomy is considered to be a distinct entity, and is identified with an analogous form in nature. Thus the head is modelled after an egg, the neck after the conch shell, the knee cap after a crab, the thigh after the trunk of a plantain tree etc.

Elaborate rituals are performed at various stages when casting icons meant for worship. Auspicious timings chosen for making the odiolai (measuring ribbon), starting of the wax model, making the molten metal, casting etc. A pooja is also performed at the time of opening the mould. The stapathis, as the bronze casters are known, consider this to be like the birth of a baby - hence the face portion is broken first. The stapathis also observe certain rituals and taboos while working on sacred images.

The craftsmen use traditional tools, most of which they manufacture themselves. Of late, however, they have started using electrically operated circular files, drills, blowers etc.

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