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Terracotta is the art of creating glazed or unglazed porous earthenware, figurines, and other decorative materials from clay which is dried and fired in temperatures of around 1000°C giving it a distinctly orange, red, brown, yellow, or grey color.
Terracotta is an ancient art form, perhaps one of the first expressions of creativity of human mind. In fact, the use of the five elements: air, water, earth, fire, and ether in Terracotta art-form lend it both an air of mystery and auspiciousness as per Hindu beliefs.
In the rest of the world too, terracotta art has been in existence since thousands of years.
Various Forms of Terracotta Art in India :
Terracotta art is an integral part of Indian culture and heritage. What’s more, the art form has not been lost as many others have; rather it is flourishing and getting richer even now in India with artisans working uninhibited in their imagination and creativity.
Terracotta items are commonplace in Indian homes in one form or the other, and artisans have kept the art alive from one generation to the other. Today, India exports exquisite terracotta items like statues, vases, decorative hangings and bells, murals, Diwali oil lamps, etc. making the art-form a rewarding one for the artisans. What makes the end product unique from region to region in India, is the difference in clay type and color as well as the sensibilities of the artist, varied culture, religious practices, and traditions of the region. Here are some of them:
West Bengal :
West Bengal has a rich tradition of art and craft and terracotta art is one of them. In fact, rural areas of the state are a treasure trove of finely crafted terracotta pots, figurines including those of beautiful horses and other items, small and large, of practical use as well as decorative. Some of the well known towns for Terracotta art-form are Murshidabad, Jessore, Birbhaum, Digha, and Hooghly. The art form came to this state in the 16th century with the influence of Vaishnavite movement which found expression in Terracotta sculpting on Krishna temples built by them.
Terracotta art in Bihar goes back to the Mauryan period (2nd-3rd cebtury BCE). Horses are a recurrent theme in Indian terracotta across the various states of India and Bihar is no exception. Darbhanga in Bihar is well known for its terracotta horses that are painted in bright rainbow colors on completion. Other items include clay elephants that are placed on roof tops to signify marriage in the house.
Terracotta artisans from Gujarat, especially from Gundiyali in Bhuj district, use the potter’s wheel to create exquisite hand-painted clay pots with geometrical patterns almost identical to the ones excavated from the sites of Indus Valley civilization. Other terracotta items popular in the state include the votive figures of animals like horses, cow, elephants, tigers, bulls, buffalos, and even insects which are placed in shrines by devotees.Madhya Pradesh :
This central Indian state has a rich tradition of creating terracotta figures for rituals as well as for day to day uses. Life-like figurines of Hindu deities, human forms, birds, horses, snakes and huge elephants are some of the popular ones created by the artists.
Tamil Nadu :
Tamil Nadu, the temple state of India and one steeped in thousands of years of history and rich cultural heritage is known for making large terracotta horses. In fact, villages of the state follow a tradition of having a huge terracotta horse figure guarding its entrance. This horse is a companion of Aiyyanar, the Tamil Village God.
Apart from Aiyyanar and his companions, shrines of other village gods and goddesses are also represented by terracotta statues. These include the Naga or Serpent shrine, Ganesha idols, etc. Apart from religious figurines, daily use items like water pots, cooking pots, grain storage containers, etc. are also made using Terracotta in the state. As per legends, the potters of Tamilnadu, also known as Kuyavar or Velar, trace their origin to the heavenly master craftsman Vishwakarma.
This state has a tradition of clay and terracotta art dating back millennia to pre Harappan and Harappan culture. People used the skill to create a wide range of items including toys, figurines, jewelry, toy cart frames, etc.
Today, the terracotta artists from the state create products such as colorfully painted vases, pots, lamps, toys, human and animal figurines, wall-hangings, and musical instruments among others. Beautiful terracotta jewelry including neck and ear pieces is a specialty of the state.
Like Haryana, Rajasthan also has an age-old tradition of terracotta art and the state is well known for its various distinctive terracotta articles. The arid state also has a special connection with clay and terracotta as people in villages carry water from distant sources to their homes in terracotta pots. Moreover, their daily worship at home is connected to terracotta idols of deities.
Alwar in Rajasthan is famous for making paper-thin light-weight pottery, also known as Kagzi, while Pokharan is known for red and white terracotta articles with geometrical patterns. Terracotta horse figures, Ganesha idols, as well as idols of local deities like Nag Dev or the serpent god, Bhairav etc are popular in the state. Bikaner district is famous for colorful pottery items painted with lac colors. Terracotta toys and animal figurines are sold in village haats or markets as well as in fairs. The art of making these toys is a legacy from the ancient Kalibangan site of Indus Valley civilization in Rajasthan.
Himachal Pradesh :
This northern Indian hilly state has terracotta artists that have their origins in Rajasthan, Punjab and Kashmir. Most of the terracotta artists here are settled in towns of Kangra, Chamba, Mandi, Kulu, and the state capital Shimla. Tracing their lineage to Lord Vishwakarma, these artists are well known for their red and black pottery which is etched with circular or linear patterns before firing, and painted black and white.
Terracotta art in Odisha goes back to 4th century BC and the tribal artisans create unique designs using special clay which has many takers both within the country and abroad. Animal figurines of bulls, horses and elephants are exquisitely molded and highlighted, and left in their original clay color. Other household items like jars, tea cups, plates, roof tiles, pots, toys, pots, candle stands, etc. are also made in Odisha with the unique tribal touch. Jewelry like bangles and necklace sets are also popular items of the state.
Jammu and Kashmir :
In this northern most state, terracotta art has two distinctive forms. While one, made in Ladakh, consists of icons, statues, and images related to Buddhism, and made mainly to cater to the various monasteries, the other consists of tea kettles, barley wine pots, kitchen stoves, oil lamps, etc. These items are finely molded and brightly colored and used for practical purposes as well as home decor. The kettles especially are beautifully crafted with its spout, handle, lid as well as brazier.
Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur, West Bengal :
From being used for daily use and home décor items, terracotta came to be used for making temples in 15th – 16th century AD in Bengal. The popularity of this building material lay in its universal and abundant availability across regions. Once people learned to bake the clay, they had a way of giving permanence to the items created by them. Slowly, terracotta art was put to more ambitious uses of creating buildings, sometimes replacing stone and wood carvings due to their non-availability.
Though there are many temples in West Bengal along the alluvial delta of the river Ganges, terracotta temples of Bishnupur in Bankura district are the most popular ones due to their exceptional terracotta carvings and sculptures.
More information on the Terracotta Art of India will follow soon. Please stay tuned.