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Indian Art Work: “Harpoon”

This paper is a study to further research “Harpoon” C: 1500-1200 BC, Indian, bronze, approximately 12”x 4”, currently shown at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The study will cover the classification of this type of art as a whole, the technique in which it was created, the artists who created this type of art, its mythology, who used it, and compare it to other works made during the time of its creation
This harpoon, being a tool used at sea for harvest of fish, is about the size of an average carving knife. Presented without a handle attached, the harpoon is eleven inches long and three inches wide. This tool’s streamlined simple form is three dimensional, but represents a squid two dimensionally. The design and form is symmetrical and is fabricated of three segments; a tip, a body, and a harness. The tip is made up of four elongated sharp angles, or blades, two on each side with a ridge running long ways from the point of the tip to the body of the harpoon. The body portion of the harpoon consists of four, two on each side, fishhook like barbs, bent downward. The harness consists of an elongated cylinder shape that stretches from the body to where it would attach to a wooden or cane handle. Brass being the medium of this piece gives it an antiqued tarnished color of brown with turquoise highlights. A scoured smooth texture, and sturdy, sharp, form, appears naturally in its composition, through this material.

The focal point of this piece is that rather than following contemporary harpoon tool design, it is formed to conceptually resemble a sea squid. This harpoon tip is as much a sculptural piece of art as a useful necessary tool. Created artistically, it can possibly suggest that a sea squid was a symbol of good sea harvest to an ancient angler. Possibly the sea squid was an offering to a certain sea god, or perhaps a supernatural being itself.

In India Bronze metal workers are accorded a high status in antiquity as the maker of robust ploughshares for farmers, effective weapons for warriors, and sophisticated tools for trade labor and sea harvest. Their place in the caste system was established by vocation, separating them into a high class of craftsmen. Their position in the caste system landed them a simple peaceful life closely related to the lifestyle of the agricultural community. Most Bronze metal workers were nomadic; the metal work they created was long lasting. After creating the utilitarian devices for a local village, there was no need of the foundation of manufacture, therefore driving them on to the next village.

This harpoon, dating around 1200 BC, was most likely created by a tribal brass metal worker. This certain group of metal worker ranked highest in the caste system of the Kammalan community in the southern portion of India. This group of metal artist followed a lenient line of work with expressive spontaneity, unlike the artist of the central and eastern lands strict profession that dictated to the Hindu scriptures. Such tribal brass workers were scattered amongst the less travelled districts of south and west areas of Bengal, southern Bihar, western Orissa and south-eastern Madhya Pradesh.

Artifacts such as this harpoon, known loosely as dhokra work, were fashioned by means of techniques that have continued in processes used today. The system of production was the lost wax method, where the original figure is precisely shaped in clay. Then a wax coating is applied, after this a thick wall of clay is put on top of the wax with channels to provide the wax to melt away when fired. Once the wax is “lost” a hollow mold has been created for molten brass to be added. After the molten metal cools the final product is a brass replica of the original clay sculpted artifact. It is by the free and rapid way in which the tribal metalworker constructs a model, that he was able to achieve a stylish contemporary casting.

This harpoon was mass produced and sold at a moderate price as a sea harvest tool to ancient Indian sea fairs. The tools was used to pierce and capture small swimming sea animals, including squid, as catch, off the reefs of southern India. The squid design was one of many designs created for this purpose out of many, the design worked well incorporating the barbs represented as tentacles, making it extremely efficient for trawling and gathering sea crop.

Compared to other bronze works of its time, this harpoon does not have great relevance. Contrast to some of the great religious brass works of art made at that time, such as the Nataraja Shiva as Lord of the Dance, Jain Ttirthankar Shrine or brass figurines of deities, had extreme iconography with great meaning and history. This harpoon was simple, and created out of brass only for the strength of the metal to aid in use as a tool.