For the last five years, I have been working in the Kathmandu Valley with Newari bronze casters to create a larger than life-sized murti, or sacred statue since.
Swami Chetanananda of the Nityananda Institute in Portland, Oregon presented me with the opportunity to come to Nepal and work with local bronze casters to create a bronze portrait of his Guru, Swami Rudrananda (known as Rudi). As a painter and fresco artist with some training in sculpture technique, I knew very little about the ancient Newari system of Bronze work, but jumped at the opportunity to learn and to participate in an artistic tradition that is timeless, profound and often overlooked in the modern art world.
The Newari artisans of Kathmandu are among the best in the world, most notably for their expertise in the lost wax process of bronze casting. The tradition of metal casting in Nepal dates back from the Licchavi period (300-800 C.E.) The conditions in which Newaris work today and their techniques have remained largely unchanged since ancient times. They work in poorly lit, small spaces with inadequate ventilation, yet they create unparalleled masterpieces of workmanship and beauty.
In 2001 I began work on the “Rudi” statue in a small house at the near Swayambunath stupa. I worked alongside Ravindra Jyapoo, a well known teacher at the Fine Arts College in Kathmandu and his son Rajendra. The Jyapoo family is unique in that they are traditionally farmers by caste, but through their passion and perseverance they are accomplished sculptors in their own right. They have trained themselves exquisitely in the complex and daunting process of lost wax bronze casting.
The clay we used for sculpting was collected from outlying areas around the valley and pounded by hand into a smooth consistency. It was then applied to a basic structure of bricks that acted as the underlying foundation and support of the statue. Our tools were rudimentary by modern standards, as was our workspace. There was a constant struggle to protect the growing sculpture from the elements, especially heat. The combination of the scorching summer sun on the tin roof and the heat from the casting ovens directly adjacent to us required that we constantly spray the statue with water and cover it with wet cloths to keep the clay damp and pliable.
Working in tandem with another artist is a challenging event for someone used to working alone. Here in Kathmandu, artists are admirably accustomed to working with various people specializing in different stages of the process. Language, cultural barriers and working style sometimes posed a challenge between Ravindra and myself. In addition, this was an unusual project in that I was aiming to achieve a portrait of a spiritual person to be used for meditation practice. My intention was for it to reflect not only the physical likeness and humanity of Rudi, but equally as important —his energy. My vision was difficult to convey to Ravindra with his more classical approach. We successfully dealt with this by dividing the work – I took the head and he worked on the torso - and through our steadfast joint efforts together we produced a cohesive and powerful piece.
After the sculpture was completed in clay, we created a die, a relief copy of the statue made out of plaster. The die is known as the”mother mold” that enables the caster to make more than one copy of the statue. Because of the very large size of the statue, over 4 feet tall, we had to partition the statue into sections by inserting thin metal dividers into the clay. These dividers also acted as small walls, effectively holding the plaster that had been brushed onto the surface of the clay. After curing, the plaster sections were carefully lifted off of the statue, cleaned then checked for accuracy. The clay statue was then destroyed, and the clay reconstituted for future use on other projects.
The next stage of the lost wax process is the preparation of a wax model, identical to the clay version. To do this, vegetable oil is brushed onto the sections of the plaster die as a resist, which prevents the wax from sticking to the plaster and allows for easy removal of the wax later. Layers of melted beeswax approximately one inch thick are brushed on top. The thickness of the wax is important, since it determines the thickness the metal will be afterwards. If it is too thin, it will lose strength and cracking or breaks will occur. If it is too thick, it results in a heavy and more costly statue.
After the wax hardens, it is carefully pulled out of the plaster molds, cleaned and joined again as a single unit. When the statue is finally intact, this time in wax, it is again thoroughly checked for accuracy and imperfections in terms of both its surface texture as well as its form.
RE-CREATING IN WAX
In re-creating the statue in wax, we had ongoing battles against the wilting and sinking of the wax from the constant summer heat. We dealt with the problems by covering the wax model in towels that had been soaked in cold water, and supported the arms and torso by stringing them to the roof beams with ropes. This was not enough. Due to unforeseen delays in casting, the wax statue became so disfigured that the whole process was undertaken again a year later with Ravindra’s son, Rajendra, heading up the Newari team.
With the second round of wax modeling I was able to further perfect the statue. Working with Rajendra now, and with the help of one of Ravindra’s top students, Vijay Maharjan, the second version was even finer than the first. Rajendra developed his own techniques to mitigate the problems caused by the weather. He coated the inside walls of the wax with a few thin coats of plaster which enabled the wax to keep it’s shape despite the heat. This was quite a successful innovation in the traditional field of casting in Nepal.
We again had to cut the statue into sections. Given the circumstances, we did it in surprisingly few parts: head, torso, two arms, legs and the base.
We coated the wax statue in a slurry of fine yellow clay mixed with cow dung and dried it slowly in the shade. Several layers of clay were carefully applied, as the uniformity of the application determines the quality of the surface of the finished statue. The clay covered wax image was then coated again – this time with several thick layers of a mixture of coarse clay and rice husks. Small openings were left in the clay providing a way by which the melted wax could escape in the casting process. When the mold was completely dry, it was heated in a special brick oven built specifically for the piece. The liquid wax poured out and was collected for use on the next project. During this process, the original wax model is lost, though the rough casing remains.
Next came the casting. The Rudi statue was cast using the five-metal combination known as Pancha Dhatu. We chose it because it is traditionally used in Nepal and India to create sacred images. It combines gold, silver, copper, zinc and tin, each of which correlate vibrationally to planetary energies, similar to the way gemstones are used in the Vedic system.
During casting, this esoteric combination of molten bronze was poured into the mold. The consistency of the heat of the metal and the smoothness of its filling is crucial. Variations in heat or timing can drastically impact the statue – leaving holes, marks or other more disastrous problems. Achieving this is particularly difficult given the conditions we were working in. The homemade oven, complete with half-baked bricks that would occasionally explode from the fire, miraculously held the heat evenly and steadily. After the molds were cooled, they were broken open to reveal the sections of the bronze statue inside. Because each mold has to be broken to release the statue, every statue made using this process is one of a kind.
Once the sections of the statue, now in metal form, were carefully joined together to form a whole, its surface was cleaned by hand using sandpaper, hammers, chisels, and files. Electric dremels were used for the larger, rougher areas. A cold forging specialist was brought in to work on some more delicate areas of the statue —such as the face. This is an extraordinary technique that involves carefully pounding out the metal with specially shaped tools to eliminate surface imperfections and make subtle changes in texture.
The statue was now ready for a patina. For this we brought in color specialists from Patan’s Mahaboudha stupa area. Our goal was to create a chocolat-ey colored patina, with the intention of duplicating the naturally occurring 14th century patinas of ancient Kathmandu valley bronzes. This was a difficult task for everyone because of the size of the piece and the unusual mix of metals. Most large statues in Nepal get covered in gold or a very dense opaque dark patina. This hides the color and surface imperfections that are a result of the extensive joining which is inevitable in the production of large pieces.
Rajendra accommodated our desire for a more natural final patina by using Pancha Dhatu for joining and touch ups on the statue. This was innovative as brass is commonly used for welding, with small exceptions of the more traditional wiring methods of silver or copper. Pancha Dhatu is harder to work with but the result was far superior because of it.
In the end our patina efforts with the specialists from Patan didn’t yield the results we were looking for. In the face of yet another challenge, the inspiration came to me that in order to reproduce a naturally occurring patina, we needed to look again to the past. These beautiful patinas have occurred over time by being exposed to the elements of sunlight and the oily smoke from butter lamps. In an effort to recreate that environment we covered the entire sculpture with mustard oil stolen from Rajendra’s kitchen, and slowly heated the statue with fire from blowtorches. The result was wonderful and very close to what we were looking for. Over time the statue will continue to develop depth and richness of color, just as the old statues have.
The statue is now ready to leave its birthplace at the base of Swayambunath stupa and go on to America. It carries inside it a wealth of tradition and artistic devotion that is unique to the Newari people of the Kathmandu valley. This experience has greatly transformed and enriched my entire life and my art.
There is such magic embedded here that regardless of the artistic technique I engage in—though sometimes frustrating—is an alchemical process that reveals amazing possibilities. I am currently working with another Newari artist, who is extraordinarily gifted in the art of repousse —Rajendra Bajracharya from Patan. My connection to the Newari people and their ancient artistic traditions continues to unfold.
About the Artist
Karla Refojo is a fresco painter and sculptor residing in Portland, Oregon. She travels regularly to Nepal where she studies traditional sculpting techniques with Newari masters. She is currently creating a line of hand crafted sacred jewelry in Kathmandu with Newari sculptors for sale in the West. Her work expresses her passion for ancient art and her understanding of its traditional technique.
You can see Karla’s work at: www.indofresco.com.
To contact Karla by
In Kathmandu call: 4 371 159