Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lost and Found

At work with wax statue in foreground.
The lost wax method is an ancient technique used to create metal statues. During my visit to the Sukanta’s Dhamrai Metal Crafts workshop, I found out just how much goes into creating these beautifully detailed pieces of art. Contrary to what I thought, it’s called “lost” not because the art form is slowly disappearing (which it is), but because the wax is lost through the process. I’ll explain.

Molding the wax is the first step. The wax, which is kept soft and malleable under a lamp, is formed into the basic shape of the to-be statue. Using additional wax and a knife heated over an open flame, details are gradually added to the shape. Over the course of days, weeks, even months depending on the size of the object, the wax takes on the shape of the final product.

Once the artisan is satisfied with the wax sculpture, the clay is applied. Leaving openings at the base of the figure, first a thin coat is painted on, followed by two additional layers of increasing thickness. After the clay dries, the objects are placed in ovens heated to 200 degrees Celsius. This is where the origins of the technique’s name comes into place. As the object is heated, the wax melts and runs out of the clay mold – it is lost.

Applying the clay.
What you’re left with is a clay mold. At this stage, the process is nearing the end. To avoid cracks, the mold is heated to the same temperature as the molten metal – 1000 degrees Celsius. The ovens look like old-fashioned wells – nothing more than a hole in the ground with a wall around it. Though the wax figures and molds are produced daily, the casting is only done once a month. Unfortunately for me, today was not that day. However, when Mike visited the workshop, he was lucky enough to witness this step of the process. His photos showed shirtless men wearing lungis -sweat glistening on their bodies – using metal tongs to move the clay molds and pour the glowing hot metal.

Cooling takes three to four hours. Once the metal has reached room temperature, the clay mold is broken. What emerges is a metal replica of the wax figure. Slight imperfections are carefully repaired – holes are welded and patched and rough edges are sanded. 

From start to finish, producing a palm sized Ganesh takes about two weeks. A thigh-high guardian horse (like the one pictured above) takes between two and three months to complete.

Because the clay mold is destroyed during the process, each piece is one of a kind. The labor, love, sweat, and care that goes into each piece is incredible.

After Sukanta’s tour, I spent time walking around observing the men at work, taking pictures, and debating which piece of art to buy. I walked out of the Dhamrai Metal Crafts with a great appreciation for the art they produce, a couple dozen photos, an imprinted piece of a clay mold, and my very own (mini) guardian horse. 

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