"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.
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
Devasenapathy Sthapathy's mind moves effortlessly
between the mythical and the modern. He is an artist decorated by the
national government, has traveled 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 -no less- 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
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
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
eye- brow is to be curved like a neem leaf; the eye shall be patterned on
a fast swimming small 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
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
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
make up, 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 traveled, 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
- S Devasenapathy Sthapathy
- 9 Raja Veedhi
- Swamimalai 612 302, Tamil Nadu
- Phone: 0435 54429
- Rajan Industries
- Post Box No 2
- 107 Main Road
- Swamimalai 612 302, Tamil Nadu
- Phone: 0435 422886
- email: firstname.lastname@example.org