The flexible brass fish of Odisha is a very ancient craft form which dates back up to 9th century AD during the rule of the Bhanja Kings but mainly received recognition during 1658 AD to 1707 AD which is around 300 years ago. It is said to have originated in the area of Bellaguntha and is believed that a person named Gangadhar Maharana was the first person who started the making of this art form.
Although in today’s world they are only used as decorative pieces, in the past it was considered the symbol of the Vishnu’s matsya avatar and was also considered to be a symbol of peace. During marriages traditionally the girl would be sent with a wooden box, which would include sindoor, kohl (kajal), money and this flexible brass fish, as it is a symbol of peace.
The main attraction of these artifacts is the life like smooth movement. When this craft was first started fishes were the only products that were being created, in today’s market you can find other creatures like prawns, snakes and tortoises. Although some of these artifacts do not have any moving parts they are still very beautiful to look at. Artifacts like the snake and the fish are the oldest once to be recorded prawns, turtles and birds all came into existence much later.
Earlier wooden flexible fishes were also very famous. As they are much more harder to make and preserve the brass once completely replaced the wooden once. In today’s market it is almost impossible to find wooden flexible fish, as there are very few artisans who still actually make them. Although the process of making them varies quiet a bit the end product is still just as appealing. The wooden once are comparatively more delicate.
The entire brass artifact is made out of brass and other metals to an extent where even the sticking of the two pieces of the metal is done using a metal of a lower melting point. Brass sheets are used to make the majority of the artifact and brass wire is used to make parts like whiskers and legs. The eyes are the only parts for which very shiny red stones are used to give it a beautiful contrast. These artifacts become more flexible with time and use.
The entire artifact is split into mainly 3 parts i.e, head, torso & the tail. The head being the main part it is created first. The dimensions of the other parts that follow are all measured with the head as a reference. The face is a cone shaped brass piece with holes for fins and bulges for eyeholes. The mouth is shaped into the head and a rim is created. As a general idea about 4 parts are used per inch of the fish. Scales are shaped on to the segments of the torso. The tail is the last piece to be made and the measurement is taken according to the smallest segment of the torso. The tail is made of two separate pieces, which are mirror images of each other. They are made separately and welded together.
Among all the products that are being made the flexible brass snake is the one, which is the most expensive because, a lot more material is required to make it and a lot more time is consumed in the process of making it. The flexible fishes are the once in most demand as they are very iconic and the flexible snake is second most highest in demand as a lot of temples of lord Shiva as well as a lot of devotees to lord Shiva keep buying them.
These artifacts are all always created upon receiving orders. In most cases new once are only made when somebody orders them. These flexible fishes are not just famous in India but also have recognition in many western and European countries.
Sadly though the number of people making these flexible brass fish keep on depleting. As there isn’t much of a demand for this in the market mainly because people don’t know about the craft form the demand is very less. The artisans who still make these artifacts work other jobs as well to earn a proper living. A lot of these artisans have received many awards from local, state as well as national levels.