A Tour Across Indian Foundries- Investment Casting

In this post today, I like to discuss a technical subject by standing in the shoes of a traveler. During my student life, I have never been in a race to become a top-scorer. However, it was Professor Mukunda’s enthusiastic teaching method, that ‘Material science and Metallurgy’ has been one subject that I topped the department (I like to show-off a bit, with those dark glasses emoticon). With an in-hand admission letter to one of the top universities to pursue a post-graduation in the subject, the lostlander deviated along the way, only to become a professional ‘Metallurgical Failure Mode Analyst’ much later in her career. If not for Prof.Mukunda, a seed of interest in the subject would have never been sown and I wouldn’t be writing about such an unconventional travel post, it seems.

Metallurgy is a science in which India has mastered from even before the world could imagine. The Vedas have a devoted section to teach these techniques. Prof.Mukunda’s favorite topic was ‘Metal casting with the lost wax technique’. His face beamed in joy every time he mentioned the intricacies that were achieved in the metal art thus created. “No two pieces that are exact replicas of each other can ever be created”, he stressed. We had foundry visits as part of our curriculum but that’s where we could only see sand, centrifugal and other forms of metal casting. Without having easy access, investment casting, also called as the ‘lost wax technique’ of metal casting was only left to our imagination. Many years after my graduation, I have been fortunate that I have been able to visit some of the amazing and traditional foundries in my country that practice the lost wax technique. These places have got them their individual ‘GI’ tags. Here is a walk through my foundry visits which I believe I should share with my fellow readers.

  1. Idols of Swamimalai: Swamimalai translates to the ‘Hill of the Lord’ that is named after an important temple in Tamil culture dedicated to Lord Murugan. This little town is famous beyond just this holy abode. One doesn’t need explanation at the mention of the bronze idols of the Cholas era. Apart from several of these antiques being prized possessions at museums across the globe, these treasures are among the highly traded commodities in the black market. These are ALL brought to form in Swamimalai. It is believed that the artisans of Swamimalai are a group of skilled men called as the Stapathis who have passed on their heritage of metal idol making, since the 12th century. The precision of composition and the measurements of these metal idols, mostly bronze are followed as per the ‘Agama Shastras’. This holy land of the alchemists was a part of my weeklong backpacking with my brother, back in Year-2015.
Clockwise from top left: 1. Raw material for mould making with the furnace and blower 2. The mould 3. Furnace 4. Metal sheet after moulding ready to be polished

2. Aranmula Kannadi: An extremely important part of malayalee culture, this handcrafted mirror is a quintessential part of Kerala. I was told that on the day of ‘Vishu’ festival, after waking up in the morning- he/she should first see themselves in an Aranmula Kannadi placed alongside the ‘Canacona flowers and a lit oil lamp’ before anything else. ‘What is it about a mirror?’ a person unknown to the traditions of this land might ask. ‘These mirrors are not glass!’ These mirrors are super-polished metal surfaces that are capable of reflecting real images. A glass always reflects a secondary image (you can notice that there is a distance from the reflecting surface to the image formed) whereas, the metal surface reflects primary images (There is no additional distance between the object and the image).

Top: The secondary reflection in a glass mirror; Below: The primary reflection in a metal ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ mirror

These manually polished mirrors are created through investment casting whose composition remains to be a secret that is passed down through generations of just 1 family. The small group of these master craftsmen who are protecting their secret recipe of the Malayalee culture all reside around the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple in the state of Pathanamthitta. I had the esteemed opportunity of visiting one of these foundries when I sneaked out after working hours on one of my business trips in Year-2019.

Video of my visit to the mirror making foundry at Aranmula

3. Dokra art of Bastar: This non-ferrous metal art is created by the forest dwelling tribes of Chhattisgarh. Historians believe that this art has evolved from what was used by the primitive tribes to create figurines of their local deities for worship and for jewellery purposes. The metals used were earlier collected directly from earth in the mineral rich area of Bastar, then smelted to separate the desired elements and mixed in intended proportions to form the final material for casting. This is an undocumented tribal technique that has been passed down through several centuries. Today, it is widely used for commercial purposes of decoration and gifting. It is now revered as a part of the tribal culture that represents the state of Chhattisgarh. I had an opportunity to visit one of these foundries and observed keenly the lifeless metal take form into art during my family’s five states’ road trip in Year-2020.

Dokra art at various stages of metal casting

4. Kola masks of Karkala: Talking about all these foundries, I cannot be leaving my homestate behind. Although the folk art of metal mask making is slowly dying, these masks are an extremely important part of the culture of the Tulunad region. These bell metal masks are used in the spiritual performance of the ‘Bhoota Kola‘. Today, the art is used beyond mask making and can be seen in idols, lamps, bowls, utensils among other things used and sold extensively in Udupi district of Karnataka.

5. The lamps and idols of Nagamangala: The contribution of the Hoysalas to the art and heritage of Karnataka cannot be justified with any number of words. Their intricacies and detailing in their work can be seen not only in the stone sculptures of their temples but also in their metal crafts. A few of the practitioners of the Hoysala style of metal casting have saved and passed on their knowledge to a few artisans who have made the town of Nagamangala their home. This thriving art can be seen in the traditional bronze lamps widely used across Karnataka and in the idols of various deities in this region. Although bronze is believed to be a godly material, other metals like tin, copper etc. too are cast into various articles using this technique.

This post is my small attempt towards promoting local art. I look forward to influence at least a few of my readers to learn more about the rich heritage of India and encourage local artisans in various ways possible. Do share your thoughts with me through the comments below.

2 thoughts on “A Tour Across Indian Foundries- Investment Casting”

  1. Very good post about Metallurgy. Highly informative and nicely written. Keep up the good work.

    Like

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