The sthapathi, or the community of artisans in Swamimalai Tamil Nadu, are the practitioners of an ancient craft that began under the Chola dynasty. They craft exquisite bronze statues of religious and cultural significance using the lost wax technique. The Swamimalai bronzes have come a long way since the times of the Cholas, and now have a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag to give them a stronger formal identity.
Then And Now
The Chola kingdom was the dominant force of the Deccan region for about four hundred years. Those kings were great patrons of the arts and crafts and were instrumental in creating a haven for architecture, sculpture, and painting artisans. The construction of their temples brought carpenters, sculptors, goldsmiths, stone masons, et al., from across the country, who then settled in Swamimalai, in the Thanjavur district. The sthapati began making bronze statues, as they were privy to the complex nature of metal statue making. The current community claims descent from Agora Veerapathira Sthapathy, and there are, as of now, about three hundred families who are in the business of casting bronze for statues.
Tools Of The Trade
Special instruments are used for casting bronze, and some continue to be what the sthapathis’ ancestors created, while some have been modified with the passing of time. The leaf strip, a ribbon of the coconut tree leaf, cut to the length of the model and folded to different sizes in proportion to the model, is still used to take the measurements of the statute, while the spatula is used to shape the wax model, and the knife, to carve the wax. To bring sharpness to the relief features, a scrapper is used, and then a soldering iron comes into play in order to even out the edges of the wax. The well-known tools of the sculptor, the hammer and chisel, are used to get rid of the unwanted metal from the casting. Engraving tools, files, and forceps are used to carve the statue further to turn it into the breathtaking beauty it was intended to be.
Processed To Polished Perfection
The process of casting always begins with the making of the wax model based on the measurements given in the Agama Shastra. The wax itself is a mixture of beeswax, resin, and groundnut oil. Once the wax model is dry, a layer of loam or alluvial soil is applied to it, and the statue is left to dry once more. Later, at strategic points in the statue, holes are drilled so that molten metal can be poured into them, and the melting wax and associated vapours can have a way out. Once it is cool, the second layer of clay and sand is applied and sun-dried for a couple of days. This mould is now bound with metal wires to avoid breakage when it is set on fire to melt the wax collected as it leaves the mould. Once this is accomplished, the bronze is poured into the mould via the holes which have been created earlier in the process. The pouring of the metal is done when the mould is still hot from the process of losing the wax, as otherwise, the cool mould will break due to the heat of the metal. Once cool, the mould is broken, and the details are chiselled in, and the statue is polished to a shine with emery paper.
The Final Avatar
Traditionally, the statues were religious, such as those of the gods from the Hindu pantheon. However, this trend shows no signs of abating as statues with cultural significance, especially those with connections to the legends, such as those of heroes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, are in great demand. Due to the granting of the GI tag, the craftspeople of Swamimalai can rest assured that the consumer is not buying a counterfeit. This is especially true for those who live away from India and want to take back an original craft of the land with them.
More information can be had from, Poompuhar, Tamil Nadu’s state emporium, which can be reached at www.tn.gov.in/hhtk/handicrafts/handi-contact.htm.