Srinivasan deftly fashions a tiny forearm with fingers arranged in a most delicate mudra or dance gesture from a small ball of golden-brown dough as he explains the skillful crafting of panchloha or panchdhatu idols that has been in practice since ancient times. I am at Swamimalai, a small village of Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, about 300 km from Chennai, roughly five hours by road via Tiruchirappalli. Home to sthapatis, the sculptors and artisans once patronised by Chola kings, the bronze idols have earned the village a GI (Geographical Indication) tag in 2008-09.
Srinivasan, a sthapati, looks after the sale and management at a manufacturing unit and prides in being one of the sculptors who helped create a three-metre-tall nataraja idol, weighing 2-tonne, which stands at the nuclear research organisation CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland.
The ancient art of lost-wax technique for bronze-idol casting requires skilled sculptors with immense patience. The sculptors work with a soft dough of bee wax and gum resin shaping it into the desired shape. The process is similar to that of dokra craft. Sthapatis refer to ancient shilpashastra for measurement standards of the idol. Carving the wax model, detailed completely with the eyes, jewellery and clothes, takes three to five days, depending on the intricacy and size of the design. The wax model is most important and is similar to the negative impression in a photograph.
The hardened wax sculpture is then covered in wet mud. This leaves the wax impression on the mud layer. The first layer of soft loamy soil of river Cauvery upon drying is enclosed in another layer of mud mixed with husk. Another week of sun-drying hardens the clay, preparing the mould to bear high temperatures of molten metal. These moulds cannot be reused and that makes each bronze idol unique. Two small holes to drain out molten wax and pour metal are made in this mould before sun-drying.
The sun-dried mud-covered wax idol is then baked in an earthen oven, which is a deep hole dug on the floor with a vessel to collect molten wax in. Another hearth melts five metals (panchloha) — zinc, copper, tin, gold and silver — together. The loss of half of the wax as fumes during baking gives the technique its name. Molten metal is then poured into the hollow that the melting of wax creates.
Once the metal cools, the clay mould is broken. After a little more chiselling and polishing, the brownish gold idol emerges. Most of the idols are solid alloy, hence, heavy. Only in a few larger pieces, the limbs and bust are sometimes made hollow with specially crafted clay mould.
Though the market is filled with cheaper, machine-made, less-dense and mass-produced idols, but these Chola bronze idols are in much demand in the US, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Britain, Malaysia and Thailand, where these idols are displayed at temples constructed by migrant Hindus (for instance, the Renganathar, Murugan and Ramalingeswara Kovil temples in Malaysia, besides the local Sai Baba Temple in Ambattur).
The failure in the make of any idol results in loss of many man-hours. Air bubbles or molten metal not reaching all the crevices are defects and the entire process has to be repeated. Since there is no way to examine the insides of the clay mould once it has been baked, achieving precision is difficult.
The time-consuming, painstaking process hasn’t, however, deterred the village’s 1,200 artisans, dividing their time between this and farming. Most larger pieces fetch good price and are made to order, the smaller pieces are sold to foreign tourists, native art collectors, museums and galleries.
As I return armed with a bronze sculpture, another nataraja idol on display gives a seemingly assuring look that the tradition will survive.
Shoma Abhyankar is a travel writer based in Pune