10 Years of Devrai Art Village

Ten years ago, Mandakini Mathur, her family, Suresh Pungati, and five skilled tribal craftsmen, started a non-profit initiative that involved a traditional method of creating beautiful pieces of art through rock-metal casting. Mandakini and her family started Devrai Art Village at their home in Panchgani.

Today, she shares the stories of her journey over the last decade – How it all began, the challenges they faced and how Devrai gradually helped in changing the lives of the tribal craftsmen who once lived in Naxalite- hit conflict areas.

Twenty two years ago, we were living in Mumbai. I was a teacher, my husband worked in advertising and our two kids were very small. It wasn’t difficult to dream of leaving the city because Mumbai is not really a pleasant place to live in. But to translate that into reality wasn’t easy. For us, it was a plunge into the dark. When we came to Panchgani, we were prepared that, if it didn’t work out, we would go back. Thankfully, it worked out and here we are.

I met Suresh sir in a school where I was interacting with students on film making and theater. He was the art teacher in Sanjeevan Vidyalaya.

We began with just five craftsmen and the challenges back then were of a different kind. It was all about rediscovering the techniques. Something which will be right for casting in Panchgani. We had to source the raw materials, we managed to get some clay from Gadchiroli. Since we were quite small, our running expenses were comparatively much lesser than now.

Now, I feel, even though the production has increased (we have grown from five craftsmen to 35 men and women), the challenges are bigger than before. The expenses have increased and every month, there is more anxiety – whether we’ll be able to pay the salaries of our craftsman or not.

In the beginning, things were different. Now, they face the challenges of making this a financially viable model and focus more on experimentation and not create a frenzy of production for the sake of sales. One solution can be considering their work a business, or finding the middle ground between a charity and a business.

My friend suggested that the NGO could be about training and development and we could start something for business and profit. I am exploring those possibilities as well.

We haven’t been successful in getting donations from the government. But we are quite proud of how we were able to sustain simply through our sales. Though I was shocked when this friend told me that NGOs are not supposed to sustain themselves through sales. So, we have to try something different.

It takes about twenty days for the craftsmen to create one art-piece. The process called Rock Dhokra is a practice that is used by the artisans in Devrai Art Village. Here’s how they manage to create the stunning objects.

Rock Dhokra is something which is our own invention and patent. We collect river pebbles which can stand the heat of molten metal and then, depending on the pebble, either we choose a shape which is appropriate to what we have in mind or sometimes the pebble itself inspires us to make something.

Keeping the stone exposed, we then begin the waxwork. Depending on the design, the waxwork could be detailed or minimalist. We also make threads of different thickness for delicate designs.

After the waxwork is done, we put the first layer of clay (which is very fine clay). It takes the imprint of the design. We then put a second layer of clay which is mixed with rice husk for strengthening the mould. We then pour molten brass through an inlet made with clay only. The whole process takes usually about 20 days. Right from the waxwork to casting.

70% success rate is normal in this process. After casting, we break the mould. Sometimes, we find that the brass hasn’t reached all the edges, then we have to recast certain portions. Sometimes, an air bubble blocks the flow of brass. Even the mould may break while taking it out.

Dhokra is like that only. Every time we break the mould, there is a moment of suspense – whether things worked out well or not. After that when we have broken the mould, we clean it, and polish it and that’s when the product is ready.

I think Devrai Art Village began with the goal of connecting with nature through art. This bond is getting severed in today’s world.

Earlier there were forests, there was simplicity in the designs. We have taken a step forward – we incorporate natural elements in our artifacts as well.

Like if you see some of our pictures, we have branches that have been cast.

We don’t use wax, we work directly with chilies, or other elements like seeds and we cast it. We cover it with clay and the original (natural) thing gets burnt out and is replaced with brass. So the texture which we cannot possibly make –  like the veins of a leaf or a bark, something which we can’t replicate, gets cast and replicated. That’s why our connect with nature is vital.

Though their work follows certain traditional practices, the team doesn’t shy away from experimentation and innovation. They have experimented with several ideas these last couple of years, and plan to continue this passion in the future as well.

We would like to get into using roughly sculpted stones. When we have enough resources, we would get a stone sculptor also, here. We are also experimenting with ceramic; Possibly ceramic tiles, brass, or ceramic objects. We’ve already made some jewelry with broken mugs and we found that the colour remains intact. So, we are going to explore more in that direction. Another thing we are willing to try is pottery, try more elaborate designs…

Mandakini has often spoken about evolving tradition. We have a rich culture and heritage and one can find several different traditions in different parts of India. In the past, it has happened that certain traditions were overlooked by our masses, but when the West started promoting these traditions all over the world, Indians started believing in them.

There’s not much exposure in our education system – I am talking about crafts and art and it applies to other areas and subjects as well.

I see interns from NID coming to Devrai Art Village. They come precisely because they want to get a feel of metal casting or Dokhra, and some hands on experience. I wish there was more exposure to indigenous art forms in their institutes. We have such rich variety and such a rich tradition. But there’s no exposure. I believe in some institutes, people have started going back to our roots and our traditions and taking inspiration from there.

So many generations have grown up on western education. It all begins with language.

We look up to the western culture and only when it is approved, and it comes back we realize that it is cool. That’s sad – For instance, if you take textile, it’s convenient and less expensive. I was horrified when I went to Banaras to see a poor weaver do a complicated design with synthetic fiber. Because there are no buyers for silk sarees as they are too expensive.

So imagine you are spending the same amount of labor over this intricate design and he’s selling it at 1/4th the price.

How can you sustain this kind of work?  Until and unless there is support from people who care about this or from the government.

In Devrai, we realized that if you want to sustain heritage, you have to sustain tribal language as well. Without the artist, how can you sustain the heritage?

On the topic of language, she understands the importance of the balance between English and local languages. Especially in the case of her tribal artisans.

You have to learn English, to understand the customer or have some knowledge of global ideas but let it not be at the cost of your own stories, your own culture. English is important, use it like a tool.

I was teaching English to a group of 120 tribal students who had come to the school in a government sponsored program and they were from 5th to 10th. I was telling them their own stories. Telling them their stories using English.

If Devrai operated with a western brand name – It had to evolve from the roots, from here. I don’t see it starting from there. It has to evolve here. Now we are getting into export and I am sure it will be appreciated. In fact we are starting a branch in Gadchiroli as well to be able to help the local men and women.

In the era of internet and social media, the concept of art has gone through a drastic change. There was a time when followers cherished art by understanding the story behind the artists and their work. Now, artists are freely sharing their work, promoting sensationalism. We even has Instagram museums where fans are asked to click selfies and share pictures. What does an expert like her feel about that?

Influence of internet and social media – It is a double edge sword. It is giving access to remote areas –  I can communicate with my craftsmen in Gadchiroli and send them design ideas, they can also send theirs because everyone has mobile phones. It helps with branding too. It is how you are able to promote online.

Art has to be sensationalized – That’s true sometimes. It depends on what kind of art you are talking about. When it comes to plastic art and craft, it depends on innate quality of the art that has more impact. People do see that.

Her team has grown over the years. But, let’s not forget that getting adivasi craftsmen from conflict hit areas to their village wasn’t easy. How did they manage to get them interested in a different life away from their homes? How did they manage to get youngsters to a place like Devrai Art Village?

Had Suresh sir not been there, it would have been impossible for me to get these people. It started very small with some people from his village and gradually it has grown organically by word of mouth and when people saw that we were doing good work, they started sending their boys and then girls and then apprentices.

We have trained tribal apprentices for two years and most of them end up working with us only. Back home, in Gadchiroli, there’s not much, and things are pretty bad. Even from across the border (Chattisgarh) people started coming.

If you were to ask our craftsmen, what brings them here and what makes them stay here – for most of them, it’s a sense of pride and dignity, a sense of belonging and being able to create.

We sell our products, with the story of the craftsmen. They are getting their own signature and story. Whereas in Chattisgarh, a middle man gives them an order to make 100 elephants and it’s working like a machine and some assembly line creation.

Nobody enjoys that – an artist will never enjoy doing that. Here they enjoy the work and they are getting to see the appreciation of their work. Which is great!

When people walk into our store, they not only see the finished product, they go down and interact with our craftsmen. So, the artists realize that their creations are being appreciated.

She found that word of mouth was a key reason in getting youngsters. People in Devrai Art Village sharing stories of how nice it is for them. Sometimes, people in her centre have to go back to support their families with farming.

The team is now working towards opening a branch in Gadricholi. A place that has seen several attacks in the recent years.

We’ve already started work there. It’s been 4-5 months. One person with us has gone back home and is helping make the process easy for us. They’ll manage creating pieces in bulk and will also get paid. We don’t have to create everything here and use our craftsmen for other things.

There are problems of managing everything. Earlier I was reluctant to spread ourselves too thin because, how do you do quality control?

But now we have 10 years of experience and have groomed few people who want to go back home, but still be attached with us.

When you help create something new, it helps in conflict areas. Otherwise some of these people could have been recruited by the Naxalites out of this desperation of where to go.

That’s how the Naxalites have been operating. If there’s no other source, they help and they join them They are caught in the crossfire between the state and the Naxalites. The option that we are trying to create of helping them stand on their own feet is always good.

Their work is slowly becoming an example of how art is helping people living in conflict hit areas. But can this example be used to create a solution that helps people in different parts of the world. Can sharing the love of art, food, travel, music or culture help in resolving conflict that has destroyed the lives of millions of innocent people?

We are probably doing just 10% of what needs to be done. Not even 10 %. We have to find professions for these people who are culturally aligned.

You may have heard, so many tribal girls were recruited by the government and were trained to become air hostesses. Now, if you put them in a completely different environment, it won’t work. You have to create something in which they will excel and you have to work on their areas of expertise. One of the girls, who came here, is not doing anything in art and craft. She has trained in naturopathy and doing her MSc in Zoology and she will get a job.

It is natural. It will happen in this world of internet and inter-connectivity. You have to retain the sense of your own work. It should not become commercialized to a degree that you lose that sense. One has to take precautions of not commercializing it and focus more on cross-pollination of ideas.

Earlier, we learned about the process of creating small objects that usually take about twenty days. The team has also worked on installations that are much bigger in size and required more work. 

Some products take about 3 months to make, Like Nandi. but then there’s the satisfaction of creating something that is unique and big and hopefully one hopes for a customer who will buy. Someone with deep pockets and deep interest in art :).

We have to create a balance between salability and manufacturing. Creating pieces that can be easily sold and sometimes indulging ourselves in love, time and labour.

Mandakini’s family has always supported the work. Apart from the craftsmen, they have also closely pitched in ideas and helped in spreading awareness.

The two kids have grown up seeing this. The younger one is a film maker. 

They also try some of their ideas. For creating the model of Iron Man, my younger son sat with the craftsmen and showed them the pictures. The elder one is a UX designer and he also pitches his ideas.

Atul has always had a keen interest in art. Getting back into art and aesthetics is always a nice recreation. It’s almost therapeutic. We’ve all become involved  because it’s happening in our house only and the work-sheds are in our garden.

Being a part of a bigger community and running an initiative that depends on sales and followers, what does the team hope for? Do they want a million followers and buyers or do they wish for a specific set of fans who support their work?

We would prefer a niche following as that would allow us create fewer things, but things of quality; and which need something new every time instead of mass production and consumption by more people. I think it will give us time to work on our ideas and creativity. Few buyers who could buy bigger artifacts.

They love their work and have more interesting stories to tell. Though they still haven’t created a successful business out of this, they have managed to sustain their work and livelihood. So, how does the future look like for this team?

We need to create spaces and bring in artists for more workshops and training. It is growing because students and interns from design schools and artists are coming here for residency. We would like to create our own awareness.

Expand in neighboring cities – It should happen organically, we are not going out-of-the-way to expand. If it grows naturally that’s good. Expansion for me would mean going deeper into the art, and document certain things about the Indian history. Not much documentation is there – even if I just start with metal casting, there is so much to explore. 

All the media used in this story belongs to Devrai Art Village.

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