Following my incredible adventures to the skilled Newari bronze casters of Nepal, and the incredible tribal Dhokra craftspeople of India, I put my pen to paper and pulled together a beautiful report to share with you everything I learnt. 'Lost-Wax Casting: the revival of skills of the fading artisans' is now available to read HERE.
Since arriving in Nepal, we have been met with wide open doors, welcoming us in to see what is going on behind tbe endless rows of bronze buddhas and incredible bronze work visible throughout the streets.
Inside the walls of Patan Museum, a well presented collection of work, includes ancient paintings, mandallas, icons, clearly written introductions to hinduism, buddhism and their merged traditions particular to the culture of Nepal. One cabinet presents a step-by-step explanation of lost-wax casting in the Nepalese method. Already in this small display, I find myself reading of techniques I hadn't been aware of- fantastic! This is why we are here.
Our first meeting is with Sangeeta Thapa, an instantly engaging and strikingly focused lady. With aspirations and visions for uplifting the contemporary art scene of Nepal, Sangeeta founded the successful, contemporary Siddartha Art Gallery in 1987, and is a leader of international projects, promoting the influence and expansing the outlook of comtemporary artists in Nepal. Sangeeta introduces us to Tejesh Man Shakya. The Caste system, established in its present form during the medieval Malla period, is still evident in the roles of many Nepalese. Family names and trades are intrinsically linked. Shakyas are by name historically metal workers, and this is true of Tejesh, who has inherited the knowledge of lost-wax casting through his family for many generations.
Most of the families casting bronze in Patan turn out masses of the highly intricate icons, fulfilling the huge demand from Tibet, alongside a smaller number for international exports. When you roam the old streets of Patan, hundreds of windows proudly showcase row upon row of intricately carved deities, sitting in the same iconic positions, hands expressing recognisable gestures. Mostly depictions of buddha, alongside Tara in her many forms and some of the other gods. The time and skill that goes into each of these pieces is mindblowing. As in all lost-wax casting, there is the original modelling, the mould making, the wax working, the imvestment mould, the casting and the finishing. However here in Nepal, hours of metal-engraving and then polishing and very often gold plating are also added to the process.
We visit Rakesh, a skillful metal engraver. Unlike the Shakyas, Rakesh does not come from a family of metal workers. He has learnt his skills through apprenticeship, something becoming more common, and he too now takes the time to pass on his knowledge to new apprentices who show up interested. Rakesh has a busy workshop. His team of metal workers sit among pieces of half finished limbs, fixing, refining and enhancing the details of the sculptures with every shape of engraving tool you can imagine. Here in Patan the beautiful, intricate patterns covering the clothes of the deities are hand engraved. Even the lines of the faces are carved out in metal, by a master engraver. We are given some tools and watched by the team with much amusement as we try to tap the lines into the hair of an unfinished buddha. A lot harder than they make it look!
Rakesh takes pride in having introduced an original piece into his workshop. A popular deity none the less, however a pose unearthed from a historical image unseen in other shops. This dedicated adherence to the ancient imagery never falters. Perhaps through religious respect but also due to the safety of knowing what sells, new generations follow unwavering in the footsteps of their fathers.
There are positives and negatives to every story. On one hand, there is a struggle for Nepal's art education to pull students into the contemporary art world, fine art students chosing more financially reliable jobs such as graphics, or else stepping back into the safety of continuing the family businesss of producing icons. Those, such as Sangeetea, who are passionate for Nepal to hold its head up in the international art scene, want to see their own artists employing their traditional crafts to make contemporary aesthetics. However it is this strict legacy of sticking to the rules that has kept alive so successfully the old skills, while in the west we have lost so much knowlesge of traditional craftmanship.
We visit Sabin Shakya. Sabin is learning the skills of modelling and wax working from his father. He shows us the wild buffalo horn tools he has inherited, adeptly smoothing the surface of a wax buddha, the skin immediately flawless beneath his practiced movements. His family specialise in producing the multiple armed buddha, sometimes of a phenominal size. He takes the time to show us around their huge workshop, a vast four storey building, hosting almost all stages of the process. Sabin's family are part of a collective of families, collaborating in this space to allow for a larger scale of production. This industrialisation of the foundry workshops is a natural progression with time, the small home foundry set up once numbering in the hundreds, now sadly diminishing. Sabin sends us away with some natural modelling wax, some buffalo horn tools and a traditonal lotus plaster mould to practice their technique.
We return to the home of Tejesh to commence a programme of lessons, starting with the basics of making the wonderful beeswax mixture, through to how to make a mould with the Nepalese clay based method. Tejesh is one of the rare cases of a traditionally skilled caster who has in fact pursued the path of a fine art sculptor. His interests range from science to design, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and art, and a fascinating resume that includes a residency in france, an exhibition in Amsterdam and an engineering research project. He is currently working on a sculpture of Chatral Rinpoche, a beautiful and majestic portrayal, modelled from his own home-made plasticine.
Just as his son does now, Tejesh learnt to handle wax from when he was a tiny child, and so sitting with him for a few hours opens our eyes to many small tips and techniques.
Time has flown and we are leaving in five days. We are very sad to be leaving this colourful city, where even the lorries look permanently ready for festival! I could not have imagined meeting kinder people or learning more than we have.
Kathmandu is joyfully hectic!
We stepped out of Kathmandu International with the optimistic aim of catching one of the ringroad buses from the airport to Patan. The buses were bursting, not an inviting sight whilst wearing our massive backpacks, and as we were having trouble identifying the right bus anyway we decided to throw ourselves straight in to haggling for a taxi ride. In our naivety we asked to be dropped off outside Patan Museum. You only need to spend a few days in Patan to know this is a crime- the tiny old alleyways are overrun with motorbikes and scooters, weaving in and out of pedestrians and fruit sellers, hooting their way past eachother on whichever side of the road offers the slightest gap. Adding a taxi to this chaos not only takes up the whole road width offensively, but also adds to the damage of the old road surfaces. The expression I feel appearing on my face when I have to flatten myself against the wall to let a taxi past, is the same expression I saw on every face on that first taxi ride.
Anyway, I must not give you the idea that I am not absolutely mesmerised by Patan and all of Kathmandu. Every minute throws a new aesthetic bomb your way; in beautiful Patan, fondly also known as Lalitpur 'city of beauty' there is an abundance of intricate skillful bronze craft, woodwork and stone carving. Window frames on the most humble buildings and even the support beams for the lovely tiered roofs are decorated with depictions of hindu and buddhist gods, patterns and symbols. Shrines and temples are countless, worshipped within, and honoured from 5am every day. There is a bizarre entanglement of ancient traditions with new technology; of authentic clothing with western sports brands. Every second is intense. Crossing the larger roads involves playing chicken with speeding vehicles. Today I saw at least two taxis with a goat in the boot! Their fates are of sacrafice this week. Today is the first official day of Dashain, the biggest festival in Nepal. Everyone stops work for a whole week, and there is a mass exodus of about 70% of Kathmandu's population out of the city. This festival, celebrating the battle of good and evil, has had a run up of dramatic parades every evening, the clashing notes of ceremonial trumpets announcing the colourful dancers along the streets. Oh and the kite fighting! More and more home-made kites have been appearing miles above the rooftops since we arrived. I first noticed the kites in India, as our plane rose up off the runway at Mumbai. Behind, the gleaming, indulgent and perfectly spotless aerport. Then a tiny fence. Then the collossal sprawl of slums, shack upon shack, so dense that it is hard to imagine a person squeezing between the buildings let alone living there. My first glimpse of movement was a scrap of paper fluttering in a spiral, caught by the wind. As I continued to gaze, I noticed more of these dancing scraps of paper, and their movements became too rythmic for the breeze, making me realise and simultaneously observe that small children were masters of these paper kites. We flew up above the clouds, my thoughts remaining on the ground with the simple games in the slums.
So back to Kathmandu. I have since learnt that the strings of the kites are coated in fine glass powder, so that the kites can join in battle high above, swooping towards each other and spiralling away in defense, the aim to cut loose the opponents kite. Girls are no where to be seen, the kite fights considered the game of boys, their battle challenges cried out across the world of the rooftops. We bought a kite and our landlord kindly showed us how it should be tied. The string comes on huge wooden spindles, which can be topped up with more string, as fight by fight it depletes. I can report that flying these kites is a lot harder than it looks; we haven't yet flown ours high enough or long enough to engage in a duel.
Next blog entry is already waiting impatiently to be written, I need to tell you about all of the wonderful people and incredible artisans I have met so far.
I am off and away to Nepal and India to continue my research into lost-wax casting in its most traditional form.
I have the great fortune of being awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship. This brilliant organisation was set up in Churchill’s name following his death, to support his belief that sharing knowledge globally will improve peace and understanding across nations.
Any person from any field of interest can propose a project- the idea being that you travel beyond the borders of Great Britain, and bring back from your voyage knowledge and information to teach and inform the British, so we may improve ourselves and have a better understanding of the world outside of our island; like the explorers of old.
I will be meeting the traditional bronze casters of Kathmandu valley, the great families who have passed down their skills for generations. I will visit as many workshops as possible and interview crafts and art people from around Kathmandu to gather a picture of the culture, as it exists now. My main aim is to learn how they are bronze casting.
In India I will travel between the tribal villages, hundreds of which are completely dependent upon lost-wax casting to sustain entire communities. The form of bronze art in these tribes is called Dhokra art, beautiful and recognisable in its aesthetic, figurative and fine in detail.
I won’t write more for fear of guessing in advance what my trip will reveal. I will report back along my journey with the truth of my discoveries.
Next post from Patan!
This weekend we went to the Forest. We have our dreams to cast some bronze with the materials we can find in our woody surroundings. This time however, we set up camp and got rather distracted with sunny bluebells and THE most epic rope swing of all time. We did however find time for a little fireside finishing and patination of some new bronze snake bracelets.
Bronze casting, using the lost-wax method, has remained the same since it was invented over 4000 years ago during the bronze age; a wax sculpture is modeled, encased in a mould, melted away, and replaced with liquid metal. Very little has been changed or modified. Only in the last century have small refinements been introduced; for instance the invention of synthetic materials means that silicon rubber moulds can be made to produce multiple wax models. Also, the restrictions of tin trading during WWII led to the invention of silicon bronze, a bronze with better flow and other beneficial properties. Even more recently, ceramic shell has been introduced into foundries, an extremely reliable material used for the investment.
In various places around the world, for example in India, the original methods are still used- I have a desire to step-back alongside these artisans, and re-discover how to cast bronze using natural materials. Why? When advancements have been made to improve the process? There are a number of motivations- The harmony of working with the natural world around us, using clay and sand from the earth beneath my feet, the satisfaction of knowing the resulting cast has been held by that which the earth can provide, with no need for processed, chemically bound, synthetic materials. The contrast in the carbon footprint of ordering ceramic shell vs digging up some clay from the river at the bottom of the field... The knowledge that whilst mixing a bucket of earthy clay and plant husks with my bare hands, I am repeating an action carried out literally thousands of years ago.
Romanticism aside, it is a significant investment to purchase all necessary modern foundry materials, heightening the appeal of learning to cast bronze with that which can be sourced around us.
And so.. I am starting this blog so that you may follow my footsteps on a venture to develop an effective method of casting bronze using natural materials.