Decorative and votive objects are mostly made out of terracotta. 'Maliya' and horses are made during festivals like Sankranti. Items of utility like pots, utensils, lamps etc are also made. Sculptures are also made on demand, with the designs given to them. Gullak or piggy banks and toys are also made these days. Contemporary and surreal forms are also made to attract the tourists.
The potters are flooded with work during the festivals. The Boliki festival in Northern Madhya Pradesh falls in line with Makar Sankranti. On Bhar Bharata, people purchase these horses and take them home, the families thus making a vow that they will perform a ritual for their children. During the Boliki festival, votive horses (1) are used in a special puja to Lord Shiva, asking for his blessings upon the family's male children. The number of horses kept is equal to the number of boys. In a box, they place the horse, a packet of sweet or salty food for each son and a Sanskrit prayer written by a priest. This is kept at the altar for two weeks and prayers are conducted. On Basant Panchami, each son opens the box kept for him and eats the sweet as a ritual to bless him with good fortune in the coming year. The horse is then taken in a procession and left to float in the village pond or river. This symbolizes the cyclic process of nature, returning the mud to the earth itself when it dissolves into the river bed.
During Diwali, the craftsmen make 'Diyas' or lamps in various shapes like tortoises, elephants etc. The tribal population gives terracotta to their shrines. Tribal lore describes horses as god's favorite creature. These sculptures are also said to be offered to appease malevolent spirits. They even make various decorative forms of the 'Surahi' (pitcher) or the Hookah.
Myths & Legends
The demon king, Hiranyakashyap had put a ban on anyone worshipping Lord Vishnu. One day, a potter was cooking rice and he did not realize that there were kittens in the huge pot which he kept over the fire. When he heard the squeals, he panicked and called out to the Lord. When Hiranyakashyap heard this, he became furious. He declared that the potter will be spared only if the kittens come out alive. If they have died in the fire, then the potter will die too. It is said that by the miracle of Lord Vishnu, the kittens were alive after the rice was cooked and the potter was spared.
In Sanskrit, both the elephant's head and a clay vessel are called 'Kumha'. 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.
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. In India, the earliest evidence dates back to 3000 B.C from the pre-Harrappan village communities of the hilly uplands in Baluchistan. 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 BC, the Harappans further mastered more techniques of working with clay. Abundant terracotta work was 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 in detail. These are also made into seals and votive offerings. Terracotta toys also had 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 Persio-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 sculpture developed during this era is 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 offerings in the form of terracotta horses are significantly followed. This is also believed to be the poor man's substitute for the original beast required for the ceremony.
Parallely, 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 looked 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 and employment in 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 Vaisnavaic and Sakta revival. There were many temples built with terracotta carvings depicting the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. 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, and fluted and plaques and other architectural elements came up in terracotta.
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.
Ritual symbolism is seen in many of the products like the votive horses, elephants, forms of the tortoise, birds like peacocks etc. Sculptures as high as 10 ft are also made. The designs are inspired from flora and fauna, which are not necessarily native to the place. Inspirations for patterns are also derived from local architecture. The products have various patterns stamped onto them using easily available items to texture like combs, shells, pins etc. The bodies are made by an assembly of wheel-turned cores and hand-molded additions.
Though it is a traditional craft, followed from time immemorial, the newer designs to suit changing tastes have come about only since the last 35 years. Even then, the craftsmen are able to only cater to the dwindling local markets and the occasional tourists. The lack of marketing and exposure is causing the craft to slowly die down. Lack of patronage, poor economic conditions and competition from mass production in moulds has deeply affected the craft.