Clay tumblers, plates, fountains, masks, planters, pots, diyas and more adorn many homes in India
Lamps in greens, yellows and red mingled with browns are a common sight in most villages and now cities too in India. Moving away from the rustic unglazed finish, the artisans offer state-of-the-art objects such as beautifully painted African masks, fountains, diyas, table pieces, wall hangings, even earthen stools. A far cry from the regular plain earthen diyas and pots that were earlier found on pavements in India, these handcrafted pieces are made for those who like all things beautiful and ethnic.
For long, terracotta has been a poor man’s vessel—the rough pots used to store water as they remain cool in hot weather. Made of easily available clay and crafted by hand on a potter’s wheel, they are a legacy handed down from the ancient civilizations. Long before candles and LEDs became the norm, earthen diyas were lit for prayers in every temple. Terracotta idols and shrines were common. But how did terracotta evolve into a beautiful art form that made its way back into plush urban homes, a far cry from the traditional pitcher found in rural homes? Among the many artisans selling these in fairs across the cities at different times of the year, I had met Praveen Kumar at a stall in Dilli Haat, Delhi, in 2016.
According to Kumar, the need to store water in these pots is limited now as people have refrigerators. But the craftsmen who worked with clay are not equipped for another profession. “Our family has been in this business for the last 35 years. We have a unit in Alwar district, Rajasthan, where we employ around 50 craftsmen and produce around 500 pieces for each design in a month. Traditionally, people would buy idols of gods made of terracotta around Diwali and also diyas to decorate their homes and invite positive energy. But now we find people like the earthen look and feel of these items that represent Indian culture. We have been participating in exhibitions across major metros in the country. We have travelled to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad to name a few cities,” elucidates the young man. He has even travelled abroad for exhibitions with his father and says that people are very fascinated by these handcrafted items. “Not only Indians, foreigners also buy our pieces, because they are made by hand and cannot be replicated easily.” The craft involves moulding to perfection and colouring in bright attractive colours with symbolic motifs.
Moving from city to city, he says that people like African masks, fountains, pots and small artifacts such as turtles, peacocks, Buddha faces. The moulds for each design are different and five different kinds of clay are mixed. The clay is sourced from the villages in Haryana. “Each design, the intricate work on the piece, would have different needs and artisans are trained in different areas. It takes about 20 days to make each piece,” he elaborates.
Besides the traditional red terracotta, now people ask for more colorful pieces, says Kumar. Different colours make a piece attractive and saleable. The price range begins at Rs 25 and goes up to Rs 5,000 for a large piece. Even though Kumar has a small shop in Delhi’s Janakpuri and a larger one in Alwar, he finds that people buy more through exhibitions and fairs.
In Delhi, terracotta décor item sellers are in Sarojini Nagar, near Malviya Nagar metro station, and near Apollo hospital, Sarita Vihar. There are many sellers who can be found on the roadside all over the town.
Moving from Dilli Haat to Dastkar near Mehrauli, Delhi, we found something different for homes. Here terracotta has taken the shape of utility items such as tumblers, plates, tawas, bowls for storage, kettle and cups and plates. Properly treated and safe to cook in, these are made by artisans in the villages of Odisha and brought to the exhibitions and fairs in the cities by Native Roots, a NGO. Its co-founder Rabindra Narayan Mishra, a corporate lawyer, saw the dismal condition of the artisans in Orissa, and decided to help out with year-round employment and keeping the skills alive. I am not sure if the NGO is still around, this was 2016. However, the utensils are easily available online. Of course, all of us in India have had tea in a kulhad, if not in a terracotta cup and saucer.
“Eating and cooking in terracotta items has been prevalent in all major ancient civilizations, be it the Indus Valley or Mohenjodaro. We have worked on the technology and it is perfectly safe to make roti on these tawas. They won’t crack or break down. The bowls can be used in microwaves too. We have even approached the government for help as keeping the skills of these artisans alive is important. It is sustainable employment. Moreover, we ensure that the items are treated properly and are hygienic before we bring them to the fairs. We have developed different moulds for each piece,” says Mishra. “The artisans can work only six months in a year, as during them monsoon or winter, the clay doesn’t dry properly. We are trying to build common facilities for them to use. But it’s a slow process.” The price range varies from Rs 50 to Rs 5,000.
In Italian, terracotta means ‘baked earth’. It is any kind of fired clay or an object such as vessel, figure or structural form, made from coarse, porous clay. When fired, this clay changes colour, going from dull ochre to red and is normally left unglazed. The journey of terracotta is as old as mankind. Terracotta figurines and vessels have been found in early civilizations such as Indus Valley, Mesopotamian, Greek and Mesoamerican. The most common use of terracotta in the ancient world was building-brick, roof tiles and sarcophagi. Terracotta figurines and reliefs adorned temples and homes too.
Small terracotta figures from the Early Bronze Age, as early as 3000 BCE, were found in Greece. Larger objects dating from the 7th century BCE were also excavated. Primitive figures, moulded statuettes of 6-7 inches in height, were found in Cyprus and Minoan Crete. The Cypriot figures comprise dancers or warriors, and the Cretan feature lively poses of women, horsemen or animals. Then there are the Tanagra figurines, found in Tanagra in central Greece (Boeotia). From the 4th century BCE, statuette production moved to Asia Minor, Rome and Britain. In the East, the figures became more ornate.
To give some examples, female figurines from Mohenjodaro, Pakistan (3000–1500 BC; Burney Relief from Ancient Mesopotamia (about 1950 BC); Olmec figurines from Mesoamerica; ushabti mortuary statuettes in Ancient Egypt. The famous Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, 209–210 BC, in China is another famed example. Large-sized statues from the Gupta period in India are seen. Popular tradition of terracotta folk sculpture, such as the Bankura horses, is prevalent now also in India.
Pre-colonial West African sculptural traditions also used terracotta such as the Nok culture of central and north-central Nigeria, the Ife/Benin cultural axis in western and southern Nigeria and the Igbo culture area of eastern Nigeria.
Terracotta died out with the Roman Empire and the 14th century. But like all things that transcend time, it made a comeback in 15th-century Italy and Germany. Glazed and coloured architectural relief features were seen in Florence, introduced in the 15th century by the Della Robbia family. Free sculptures were revived by artists such as Donatello, Verrocchio Guido Mazzoni and Antonio Begarelli.
Terracotta has been evolving since then, seen in the works of 18th-century French artists Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne and Jean-Antoine Houdon. Pottery centres such as Sèvres in France introduced mythological and allegorical themes. The modern revival of terracotta dates from the 20th century. In India, the potter’s wheels never stopped rotating in the villages.
West Bengal: The towns of Murshidabad, Jessore, Birbhaum, Digha and Hooghly are famous for terracotta pots and figurines. It was in the 16th century that terracotta sculptures were carved out on Krishna temples here. They also worship the snake goddess Manasa and her shrine is constructed with tree branches, terracotta snakes and pots. The artisans use two or more types of clay from river beds and pits. The patterns are usually traditional or community-related.
Bihar: Thefigureshere date to theMauryan period (2nd-3rd century BCE). Horses are a recurrent theme in Indian terracotta and Darbhanga is well known for its terracotta horses painted in bright rainbow colours. Clay elephants on roof tops signify marriage in the house.
Gujarat: Theartisans from Gundiyali in Bhuj district create clay pots with geometrical patterns. Other popular items are horses, cow, elephants, tigers, bulls, buffaloes, insects.
Madhya Pradesh: Artisans here createfigures for rituals such as Hindu deities, human forms, birds, horses, snakes and elephants.
Tamil Nadu: Legend says that the potters of Tamil Nadu, known as kuyavar or velar, are the descendants of the master craftsman Vishwakarma. Here, Aiyyanar, a village God, is flanked by large white horses and elephants. Sometimes, he is sculpted riding on them. Shrines of gods and goddesses with terracotta statues such as naga or serpent shrine, Ganesha, are popular in the villages.
Haryana: Evidence ofterracotta art, dating back to Pre-Harappan and Harappan culture, have been found here. These include toys, figurines, jewelry, toy cart frames. Around 1000 B.C., painted grey ware (PGW) with black designs was made, usually associated with the Mahabharata and the site of Kurushetra. In Sugh, figurines of mother goddess, animal and bird figurines and Yaksha statues were found.
Now, artists create painted vases, pots, lamps, toys, human and animal figurines, wall hangings, musical instruments and terracotta jewellery.
Rajasthan: In this water-scarce region, terracotta pots are used to store water. They also worship terracotta idols of deities. The art of making toys and animal figures stems from the ancient Kalibangan site of Indus Valley civilization.
Alwar is famous for kagzi or paper-thin light-weight pottery. Pokharan is known for red and white terracotta articles with incised geometrical patterns. In Molela, horse figures, Ganesha idols, Nag Dev, Bhairav, are made. From Bikaner district, come the colourful pottery items painted with lac colors.
Himachal Pradesh: Most artisans live in the towns of Kangra, Chamba, Mandi, Kulu, and Shimla. The red and black pottery is etched with circular or linear patterns before firing and painted black and white.
Odisha: Dating to the 4th century BC, the tribal artisans create jewellery using special clay. Popular are animal figurines of bulls, horses and elephants, and jars, tea cups, plates, roof tiles, pots, toys, pots, candle stands.
Jammu and Kashmir: In Ladakh, the art is primarily related to statues and images connected with Buddhism, catering to the monasteries. And then there are tea kettles, barley wine pots, kitchen stoves, oil lamps, clay mask.
Where to See Terracotta Art in India
- Adivart Tribal & Folk Art Museum, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh
This has over 500 tribal antiques, folk paintings, jewellery, masks, terracotta objects, metal craft and bamboo items. It is open from 10am-5pm, closed on Mondays and entry fee is Rs 10
From the common earthen pot that stores drinking water to the giant-sized cultic equestrian figures of the rural Tamil deities of the Aiyyanar cult, terracotta art occupies a central position in Indian life and culture. Having always had their existence outside the rigid rules of the shilpashastras or the constituted Hindu canons governing artistic expression, terracotta art enjoys enormous freedom in terms of imagination and conception.
- Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur, West Bengal
Located in the Bankura district of West Bengal, the town is named after Lord Vishnu, the preserver. The beautiful Terracotta Temples date to the 16th Century, built by the Malla Dynasty. Crafted from the local laterite and brick, there are 17 temples spread in and around the town. They are covered with terracotta tiles depicting scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. The most famous ones are Shyam Ray Temple, the twin shrines of Jorbangla and the Rasmancha.
The region is also famous for beautiful jars, disks, terracotta horses, elephants, Ganesha, and Nataraj. In fact, Bankura horses were once used for religious purposes and are known for their symmetrical shape and rounded curves.
- Asharikandi, a terracotta village in Assam
In this small cluster, almost 80 families create terracotta and pottery items. This village comes under Devitola Development Block of Dhubri district, Assam. Today, this is said to be the largest cluster in India where both terracotta and pottery crafts are made in the traditional way. The main raw material is Hiramati, a special type of soil. Earlier, the potters would make the ware and utensils for the local zamindars, but now they are devoted to their craft. Famous items of the village are Hatima Doll, Ainar Horse, Elephant, Rhino, idols of God and Goddesses.
Famous artisans here:
1. Late Sarala Bala Devi who bagged the National Award on Terracotta Craft (1982) for creating HATIMA doll, a lovely female figure with a child on her lap.
2. Dhirendra Nath Paul, son of late Sarala Bala Devi, is an acclaimed craftsman.
3. Mahadev Paul bagged the State Award on Terracotta for his Ganesha idol.
4. Gokul Paul and Ashwini Paul are the young upcoming talents.
While I don’t have the famous Bankur horses or African masks in my home, I do have a peacock diya stand and some stools which I paint on festive occasions and turn them into bright and happy items. Do share your experience with terracotta items too.