Taken from earth or Maati, clay is simple element crafted to a plethora of forms. Needs, beliefs and imagination of the people have found shape and texture in clay. The craftsmen make figures of god and goddesses, animals as well as toys and objects of utility.

Usage

During the summers, clay water pots or dispensers are made and sold. 'Gullak' or coin-banks, oil lamps, incense burners, figures of gods and goddesses are also made. During the Pola festival, when bulls are worshipped, many figurines of bulls and horses are made. The craftsmen also make chillums, lanterns, different kinds of chimneys and various utensils. 

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Significance

Amongst the tribal population, the Bidhri pooja is popular. The villagers save up money and congregate to sacrifice a goat. The ceremony involves worshipping a clay figurine of Banjari Matha or goddess, accompanied by a feast and copious amounts of locally brewed liquor.
The 'Kumhar' or the potter is also called 'Prajapati', lord of the people. Clay, wind and water play an important role in the lives of the people.  The potters need to respect these basic elements. Through the centuries of practice, they have attained thorough knowledge about the basic nature of these elements. In each village, there is at least one family of a potter, or a street full of potters. The 'Garas' system was prevalent in the olden days where the potter served only a few homes. He would make water pots, dishes to make bread, toys for children and lamps for festivals. The potter would receive grains, cloth and money for his services. The potter's wheel is worshipped before any auspicious ceremony. Pots are symbolically used. They are kept in the 'mandap' or canopy during marriages and also kept during pregnancies. During yagnas, pots are kept to represent the planets. The cremation grounds have pots to hold ashes. 

Potters work in large spaces. Their houses are usually located at the ends of the village, with the kilns adjacent to their dwellings. They have large front and backyards and attics, for working and storage since they have quite a large number of terracotta products stacked. The spaces are organized and demarcated for different functions like storing the raw materials, the wheel, kneading, finished products as well as tethering cattle.
The entire family takes part in the work. The women and children collect and prepare the clay, the men work on the wheels and work on the kiln while the women ornament the products and paint them.  

Haku Shah in Votive Terracottas of Gujarat says - "The making of an object and living with it are the two interconnected elements that have governed the craft tradition for hundreds of years. The potters and tribals are linked by a close bond, the creative urge of the former and the religious needs of the latter form a wonderful combination becoming in fact inseparable.

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Myths & Legends

A legend goes that once the gods organized a Yagna to which Brahma, Vishnu and Mahadeva were invited. The men who made pots then were called 'Hathretiya'. One of the Hathretiyas was commissioned to craft a Kumbha (earthen pot) for the sacred sacrifice ceremony. While making the pots, one of the pots cracked. The Hathretiya did not have water at hand, so he used his spittle to mend the crack. The pot was thus deemed to be contaminated. After much thought and chaos, Brahma created a potter and asked him to make a pot. The potter obliged and asked for tools to aid him in crafting. Vishnu gave him his Sudarshan Chakra, Shiva his Pindi (a circular base to support the chakra or wheel) and Brahma a piece from his sacred thread to cut the clay. The Kumbhakar or potter has been crafting various forms of pots and other articles with these divine tools. 

In Sanskrit, both the elephant's head and a clay vessel are called 'Kumbha'. A legend goes that in ancient times, elephants while playing with water had put mud on their heads. This had dried up later and fell off as a hollow form in the shape of the elephant's head. It is believed that this was how clay pottery was invented. Fascinated by the pieces, the people kept them in their huts. One day when the huts caught fire, they noticed that the clay pieces remained intact. It also gradually dawned on them that it also withstood the effects of rain. They thus discovered firing and baking too.

History

Clay being a timeless material, has lent it's qualities to man's expressions for eons. It was readily available, organic and could be shaped into any form with just bare hands and minimum or no tools at all. Expressions of belief, surroundings, life, needs or aspirations could be immediately transformed into the tangible. 
The earliest known terracotta work goes back to around 15,000 years ago. A common symbol of most civilizations is the mother figure.  Their technique of hand-modeling is still followed where separate pellets of clay are used for eyes, mouth and adornments. In the latter half of the 3rd millennium B.C, the Harappans further mastered more techniques of working with clay. Abundant terracottas were produced during this age. They devised the mould and later the wheel to work with clay. Male and female figurines as well as a variety of animal figures like monkeys, goats, rhinos, elephants, pigs, lions, bulls etc were done to detail. These are also made into seals and votive offerings. Terracotta toys were also an exquisite characteristic with their movable heads and perforations for sliding around sticks and mounts on wheels. Hollow forms in clay were discovered around 10,000 years ago. Straw fillings or bamboo reinforcements are believed to have aided this purpose. The discovery of fire and the settling down of man in pastures accelerated the usage of terracotta. 

During the Mauryan period, the figures developed to fuller bodies and more detailed in their actions. The sensual appeal was enhanced and this aspect later led to the characteristic of the Mithuna sculptures. There was a court patronage too and this led to secular objects being handled in terracotta. A large influence of foreign styles is also seen during this period, especially that of Perso- Hellenistic art. The famous Northern Black polished ware and the black slipped pottery evolved in this period, as well as the characteristic toy animals decorated in thick black slip. 

In the Sunga period, 2nd century BC onwards, completely molded plaques replaced hand-modeled figures. They were given perforations on the top for hanging on the walls. These have been found all over the north and eastern India. The themes depicted an intense preoccupation of worldly life and thereby intricately delicate detailing done of clothing and ornaments. The famous Mithuna sculptures developed during this era - the man-woman passionate embrace and the theme of desire as the cause of procreation. Another popular plaque sculpture was the picnic party showing a child learning alphabets on a wooden board. The toy carts also reached defined forms having the elephant, ram and horse believed to symbolize the trinity of Indra, Agni and Surya. The recurring figurine of the horse is believed to have been stemmed from the practice of Ashwamedha, a royal ritual involving a horse, done for prosperity and fortune. In rural India, even today, votive offering in the form of terracotta horses is significantly followed. This is also believed to be the poor man's substitute for the original beast required for the ceremony. 
In parallel, in the southern and Deccan parts of India, during the 2nd century BC up to the early Christian era, clay art flourished. Due to the lack of rich, fine common clay in the Satavahana Empire, pure white clay called Kaolin was used which was superior in plasticity and durability. Miniature sculptures were mastered as well as hollow figures with a double mould. Roman influence was noticeably present. 
From the 1st to 3rd century AD, trade routes were opened in the cities of Mathura and Taxila. The sculptures depicted less restraint and an awareness of moods, spiritual insight, contemplation and desire. Many clay workers provided images for the pilgrims to the Stupas. The Gandhara School of art developed in Taxila, a blend of Hellenistic plasticity and Indian motifs. Sculptures of Buddhas, Bodhisattavas and personages who look Indian were crafted with a Greek technique. There was a reversal into hand modeling. The Bhakthi cult brought about terracottas with strong religious associations. A number of gods and goddesses of different religions were represented.
The Gupta period saw an influx of trade, employment and abundance. Religious structures were constructed in brick and this facilitated the production of terracotta art in larger scales. There were architectural decorations comprising of carved and molded bricks, tiles and panels containing human, bird and vegetal motifs. The techniques of molding and hand-modeling are once again employed in cohesion. 

With the Muslim invasion and the decline of the Gupta Empire, there was a fall in the art also. Kashmir, medieval terracotta of Bengal, Bihar and Eastern India were the only ones which thrived. At Paharpur in Bengal, plaques were found dating from 8th and 10th centuries. Besides figures of Buddhist and Brahmanical deities, figures depicting Indian fables were also found. 
In the period from 14th to 18th century, there was a revival within the Vaishnavaite and Sakta sects. There were many temples built with terracotta carvings depicting the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In the Muslim rule, since idols were not encouraged, a wide variety of patterned architectural elements came about in terracotta. Bricks which were square, rectangular, triangular, round, perforated, fluted and plaques and other architectural elements in terracotta were made under the reign of Muslim rulers. 
The techniques and practice of contemporary terracotta art are varied. In some areas, the entire sculpture is hand-modeled. In others, the trunk is made by the potters by turning or molding and then the limbs and adornments are added. Some use tools, while others only their fingers. Tribal terracotta art is most varied and vibrant in form. 'Tribal' also does not necessarily mean 'crude'. They also achieve highly sophisticated forms and abstractions.

Design

The horse occupies a significant status in the ritual symbolism. Gods and heroes are often shown riding horses. Elephants too are commonly seen. The elephants with a 'Howdah' (carriage on the elephants) are beautifully crafted. These are also used as the Singhaasan (throne) for the mother goddess. The animal figures are painted with lime and colored with ochre and blue.
Toys are usually hand - fashioned and are designed to be hollow and solid. These are usually done by women of the house. Horses, elephants, dogs, lions, birds, deer and bull are made, which are often fixed with wheels. Whistling toys are also made. These are one of the simplest and oldest forms of terracotta toys passed down from the Indus valley civilizations. 
Masks are made for the Chhera festival, where young men and women dance around wearing masks. These are crafted out of clay pots, with holes made for eyes and a clay piece stuck on for the nose or other features. These are usually colored red or black. Pots turned upside down on a stick with grotesque features drawn on them are kept in the fields as scarecrows.
Lamps are made in the traditional designs with a pinched protrusion to keep the wick. The lamps are also crafted in various elaborate shapes and techniques like the Chidiya Diya (bird lamp) or the Mata Diya (mother lamp). 

Black terracotta is specialized in Mandla, adorned with geometric motifs. Pots are used to brew liquor and have a unique shape to them. 

Another famous product of this region is the chimney. There are two types - with the stand and without the stand. The different parts are separately molded on the wheel. These are then joined together by hand. The decorative motifs and patterns are made by hand. The products have various patterns stamped onto them using easily available items to texture like combs, shells, pins etc.

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Challenges

Obtaining the right kind of mud is posing to be a problem in present times. The cost of the items made is also very less, and this paired with low sales is making life very difficult for the craftsmen. Marketing is also an issue. The work is facing large competition from the molded plastics and metal products. The younger generations have moved onto steady jobs of fixed monthly income, and have moved to the cities.

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