Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
Traditionally, this craft was developed to create votive images for the tribal worship. They are installed in the village shrines and prayed too, for curing illnesses and misfortunes. These potters mainly cater to the Bhil tribes and their Bhopas (priests) who come to purchase these plaques from Molela, having travelled hundreds of kilometers from the borders of Madhya Pradesh.
It didn’t take long for this craft to gain recognition among architects and designers; hence, the craft has evolved to suit the times and it is utilized to decorate walls or urban dwellings.
Molela terracotta has also received good exposure and has interacted well with the western market. As a result, the craftsmen have started depicting local scenes of everyday life in villages and their artifacts range from a palm sized image to elaborate plaques.
Apart from making religious plaques to be installed at shrines, human and animal terracotta figures are also made and then offered on the shrines. These figures have gained regional characteristics. Tribes such as ‘Chaudhary’ and ‘Bheel’, order for terracotta replicas of human body parts, which are presented as offerings on the shrines to cure the ailment in that particular body part, like a replica of arm will be offered for a fractured arm, even a whole figure is sometimes presented in the case of fever and other ailments which affect the whole body.
The Molela plaques are only made in Molela region exclusively. Molela’s clay and climate are conducive to its unique design. The unique type of clay found here helps in making robust deigns compared to the clay found in other regions, which if used, results in cracks in the artwork.
The entire process is carried out by hand and no moulds are involved. All the raw materials are organic, as the plaques are considered sacred. Even the colors which are polished on the plaque surface are derived from lacquer. Traditionally and even now the payment for these idols is in the form of money, clothes, grains or other offerings. The intricacy of work and size together determine the price of the Plaque. The tribals usually change these votives every year; this ritual is believed to prevent misfortune. The tribals consider these Gods as their protectors.
The plaques represent local protective ideals, heroes and saints such as Dharamraj Dev Narayan and Pabuji (Rajput heroes), as well as the other more widespread deities such as Ganesha, Bhairavanath and Durga.
During Maag season which coincides with harvest festival (January-February), the ‘Kumhar’ (potter) houses host large number of tribes pouring in from Mewar region of Rajasthan, from Gujarat region and from the region near Madhya Pradesh border. However, the time of rice harvest in winter is the busiest period for the craftsmen, as the plaques are made during this time. The extreme summers in the region are too harsh to work and the high temperature renders cracks in the plaque.
The tribes are accompanied by their community priest called the Bhopa who helps them purchase the appropriate plaque or idol. Once the idol is decided upon, the group rests at the Kumhar house, while their idol is being customized. The tribe carries the completed idol on their heads while heading for their native places, as a sign of respect for the votive plaque. On their arrival at native village, the idols are made to visit all the houses in the village, to bless its occupants before it is installed in the semi-open shrine or Devra. Some of the minorities of Rajasthan and Gujarat perform blood offerings during the installation ceremonies, but these sacrificial rituals have been banned by the conservation authorities. The main deity worshipped by the tribals is Dharmaraj, who is a Rajput hero. He is believed to guard the villages against bad omens and accidents, when he rides around patrolling the villages in the nights. His original shrine was moved and hidden in Nathdwara, 10 kms away from Molela, during the Muslim invasions from the north.
The story behind this craft talks about a blind potter who dreamt of God Devnarayan or Dharmaraja. The God instructed him to dig out clay from a particular spot and sculpt out an idol with bare hands. As soon as the blind potter did that, his sight was restored. His successors carried on the craft and the traditional image of Dharmaraja on his horse is still made on plaques and worshiped.
The craft of sculpting with terracotta has been in India from time immemorial. There are many archaeological references to earthenware and pottery in the Pre-Harappan and Harappan periods. The craft is also believed to have come via Persia, when Mongol warrior Genghis Khan had conquered China in 1212 AD. The craftsmen have honed the art of sculpting with earth, the most primitive raw material, and displayed an excellent understanding of the human form. During the Gupta period, a more delicate form of the human figure was sculpted. The ornaments of the Sunga-Kushana figurines were lean and delicate. There was a high degree of sophistication which was exhibited by the terracotta sculptures of this period, which continues until today.
The prominent figures depicted in the votives are Dharmaraja and Nagaraja. Several artifacts are left in the original color of the raw material, but the tribes prefer bright colors for the Gods. There are specific colors for the deities. For example, Blue is used for Kaladev and Orange is used for Goradev. Some of the popular themes depict Rajput heroes, local deities, daily household chores, women empowerment, celestial bodies, various professions in countryside, agricultural activities, war scenes, mythological stories like Krishna carrying a mountain on his finger etc.
A few examples of the deities sculpted onto these votive plaques are as follows:
Deonarain: A popular god of Gujar tribe. He is depicted as being seated on a horse holding a spear and lotus. Deonarain is seen attended to by a serpent, herds of cows, sun, man, a crocodile and a peacock. Symbolic representations of this deity, like a hand curved like the hood of the cobra is resorted to, at times.
Bhairavanath: This male deity is made up of two images. One is the Kala Bhairav or the dark one and the Gora Bhairav or the fair one. This symbolizes the deity’s potency of encompassing universal polarities. He bears a resemblance to Lord Shiva and holds a Trishul or a trident in his hand. The Kala Bhairav is considered to be cunning and strong willed; he is propitiated by offerings of liquor and animal sacrifice. The Gora Bhairav is mild and compassionate and he is offered sweetmeats.
Nagadev/Takhaji: This serpent god has been worshipped in India since ancient times. Traditionally, this plaque has a central figure flanked by several snakes. The deity is also depicted with twelve hoods sometimes.
Mother Goddess: She is depicted in various incarnations. As Durga, she sits astride a lion, as Chamunda on an elephant. Icons of her mounted on a buffalo show her as Kalika, others as Amba, Aawanmata, Sadumata or Hedamata, each of these showing her holding a sword, a drum, a trident and a khappar, bowl of blood, in her four hands.
Tantra cult: It is a cult which tried to unify the male – female polarities but degenerated into magic and mysticism. The potters make figurines for this cult too though the demand is limited.
Bhopa: They are the priests of the tribal people. Kala Bhopa is a black colored idol made to respect the priests and is replaced every three to five years.
Dharmaraja: A popular tribal deity is shown riding a horse and the background is intricately filled with details like cows, dogs, tigers and humans. The majestic posture of the horse lends grandeur to the image. This plaque is also painted with vivid colors like red, blue, green, yellow and pink.
Gangaur: This is a grand Rajasthani festival in which Parvati and Shiva are worshipped. Parvati, considered the ideal woman, is molded with round open eyes. Young maidens and newly married women worship these figurines for happy married life. These are mostly painted in orange and blue and adorned with silver paper.
Dhola-Maru: These are the names of a couple featuring in many of the folk tales and legends. The lovers, Dhola and Maru, are shown fleeing across the desert on camel back and they are painted in muted colors. Maru is held protectively by her lover Dhola and the camel has its neck bent backwards.
The demand for this craft is seasonal. It is sought after only once a year when new pottery and votive idols are required during harvest festival. During rest of the year, the craftsmen take to agriculture or some other means of income
The designs have become redundant when the same kind of relief and same techniques are used for the different subjects. The subjects and the uses are suggested by the client. This craft requires a strong understanding of composition and subject matter as well as a skill to be able to give each plaque its distinct character with patience.
Clay: Molela clay is muddy in color. It is dug from the banks of Banas River, 2 Km away from Molela on Nathdwara Road. Each potter has his own spot for digging, based on his own previous experiences.
Leedh: It is donkey dung, which is mixed with rice husk and added to the clay for strengthening.
Mingni: These are goat droppings, utilized for making ‘Kande’ (dried cakes).
Chhan: It is a local name for cow dung, which is used at several steps during Molela terracotta process.
Kande: It is a fuel used for heat generation in kiln, this is made from cow dung, hay, goat droppings and bio waste of other ruminants. It has a high calorific value and the smoke resulting from its combustion keeps mosquitoes and insects away.
Ghasan: Ghasan is a traditional tempering substance used to bring desired consistency, texture, hardness to the clay.
Kadab: A dry corn grass. Being a main crop of Molela, this grass is readily available and utilized as a fuel.
Wood: It is used for making basic tools for plaque making process; wood is also utilized as a fuel for heat generation.
Bani: Bani is a local name for ash resulting from burning of firewood, hay or Kande, sometimes even ash is added to clay paste.
Dawrigund: It is a vegetable gum used as a binder, derived from the trees.
Paliya: It is a golden pigment to put golden finish to the artwork.
Palewa: It is a clay slip prepared through Molela clay and used to make different colors when mixed with different materials.
Pilli Mitti: A natural ochre color utilized for coloring plaques.
Khadi: Khadi is a chalk based material used to impart white color on artifacts.
Jala: It is a local name for a lacquer coat applied as polish or varnish; this is derived from lacquer mixed with a particular solvent
As the process involves the most basic raw materials, which are biodegradable as well as naturally derived; there is not much waste to be tackled. The ash produced is utilized for washing hands and utensils, fired clay pieces are used for sealing the kiln or they are disposed off.
Mogri: Tool to beat the solid clay knots to powdered form.
Pindi: One of the beating tools used in the process, taken into account when donkey dung is mixed with the clay to create a moldable paste.
Lohe ki bhaardid: It is a flat tool with a sharp edge; it has ferrous composition and thin cross section, generally used to scrape clay, cut the clay coils or to form the desired shapes through clay.
Baldi: Local name for a chisel like tool used for shaping the plaque.
Lakdi ka pattiya: Patiya is a flat plank of wood, a general tool that can be used to collect or pick up the clay from ground and it is also used to form a flat slab of clay with uniform thickness.
Kunchi: A paint brush made with donkey hair, used to paint various colors on the formed plaque.
Cloth waste: As the process involves dealing with clay paste, colors, clay slip; old or used clothes are required to wipe out the undesired patches and spots. As fabrics are good absorbents, cloth is also used to apply Geru to the plaque.
Chack: A local name for potter`s wheel, mostly utilized to form uniform circular or spherical shapes.
This craft is associated with the harvest rituals of the tribes. They travel to Molela from as far as Mewar region, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat to buy these plaques during the months of January and February, accompanied by a Bhopa or a priest. The plaques are an integral part of the cultural framework of the tribes. The plaques are believed to bring prosperity and wellness. After a proper scrutiny, the plaque is selected and customized in the way the Bhopa or tribal priest has suggested. The plaque is then carried on the heads of tribal people, up to the native village of the tribe. When the plaque arrives in the village, there is a ceremony in which the plaque is carried to all the houses in the tribe to purify these houses; the plaque is then installed in the holy shrine. In a way, the craftsmen of Molela have been sculpting spiritual integrity in these tribes. The respect and honor which they receive from various tribes is the pillar around which the craftsmen’s whole work culture is formed.
The images are sculpted and polished using techniques of basic clay work on a flat clay slab. They are made with hands and simple tools. No machine work is involved. The craftsmen dab clay, mould them with hands and use techniques like coiling, cutting, scratching and pinching to work in the details.
Preparing the clay : There are two types of local clay utilized for plaque making, Nada and Alu. Nada is coarse clay with sand content and Alu is finer clay, both are mixed in equal proportions. Nearly 15-20 measures of donkey dung is also added.
The mined clay is brought and beaten with the help of Mogri to reduce the particle size. It is then collected and brought for plaque preparation. Dried and sifted donkey dung is first spread on the ground and then the prepared clay is laid on it. The mixture of cow dung and clay is then beaten through Pindi, a beating tool made from stone. During the beating, clay is scraped off the Pindi using a cutting tool called Baldi. The beating is continued till a clay slab 1.5 inches thick is attained. After this, a wooden plate called Patiya is used for beating. As a result, a surface is formed by conditioned clay, the outline of which is made uniform by slitting out the irregularities through Baldi. The flat surface attained is the base of the plaque, it is called Thala.
Several holes are dug into the slab with an iron tool Bhaladi. These holes help in the removal of pores or trapped air, which can result in irregularities during firing.
Making the shapes : Approximate measurements are taken on the slab using the palm of potter’s hand. The main shapes are cut and outlined. Thick coils are then made by rolling the clay, which are then placed on the slab according to the design and flattened to make a shape. Thinner coils are used for the detailing. Square coils are used to make tapered noses and tiny balls of clay are used to make finer details like jewelry. The clay is squeezed, punched, twisted and dried to a certain extent in the hands to give desired details. The craftsmen skillfully shape the plaque image in such a way that the characters on the plaque are hollow from the inside, this makes the plaque light and easy to handle and also leads to efficient firing of the plaque.
Drying : The slabs are left out to dry in the sun. Some sculptures can be several meters high, so they are built over a pile of pots thrown together. These are left to dry for almost 4 to 14 days, depending on the weather. The red Geru is mixed with the glue and it is used to cover the idols just before the firing is done.
Stacking : The damaged pieces are repaired and stacked. This almost takes up an entire day. Fire-wood is chopped and pots to build the kiln are brought in. The pieces which were placed to be dried are then carried to the kiln by the family members.
Firing in the kiln : The idols are made to stand in an open kiln, which is covered with pieces of broken pottery. Wood is added slowly to this open structure, to keep the temperature constant. The right temperature is determined by the craftsmen according to the height of the flames. A large basket sprinkled with water is held in one hand by the craftsmen as a shield, citing that the temperature in the kiln is quite high. The fire has to be fed every 10 to 15 minutes. Two people hold a large cloth against the kiln to break the intensity of the wind.
Finishing : Some artifacts might crack while firing in the kiln. These cracks are then filled with a mixture of ground fired clay, water and Fevicol. The ground fired clay is used to fill the larger gaps while the Fevicol and water mixture will suffice for the narrower openings. After this the entire surface is covered with a liquid, which is made with powdered clay and water to create a uniform surface finish. If the plaque has to be colored, it has to be chosen from traditional seven colors i.e. blue, green, black, orange, peach, red and yellow. These colors are applied by mixing them with clay slip and glue. Some icons are decorated with thin foils of silver paper while still wet with varnish. This is again left in the sun to dry for the glaze to harden. Once sold, the Murti are carried away by the buyer on his head, in reverence for the Gods.
List of craftsmen.