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Mapping terracota’s journey down the ages

There have been efforts to revive the vast array of traditional Indian folk art including handicrafts, music and folklore. However, the popularisation of some forms of traditional folk art against others can be largely associated with initiatives of the Central government, state governments and other non-governmental players.

Most government and non-government stakeholders have blended these initiatives with the larger strategy of marketing a region as an ideal travel destination. In the midst of such efforts, some of the most celebrated traditional forms of craft are being pushed off the mainstream – one of them being the craft of terracotta.  

‘From Mohenjo-Daro to Birbhum is a far cry. It took centuries for the terracotta craft to reach Birbhum, attain perfection and beautify our temples and homes. This vanishing art deserves to be revived before it is too late,’ feels Mukul Dey, an expert on the subject.

What actually is this medium of terracotta? If one goes by the dictionary meaning, Webster’s refers to ‘terracotta’ as a glazed or unglazed fired clay used for statuettes and vases as also for architectural purposes. It is also associated with brownish orange colour.

The medium of terracotta or burnt clay is used for traditional folk art and handicrafts, and dates back to thousands of years all the way to the Indus Valley civilisation. Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa have unearthed exquisite items of terracotta figurines, utensils, toys and seals. This folk art gradually spread eastwards to mainland India, and in the process made itself a part of religious rituals.

With terracotta’s spread through centuries, Gujarat became renowned for its votive terracotta art that included embellished figurines of animals and deities.

Rajasthan produced intricate images of deities. Potters in Madhya Pradesh still produce highly decorative elephants. And the life-sized Ayanaar horses of Tamil Nadu draw no parallel.

With traditional roofing tiles and floor tiles, terracotta gradually attained a visual art form as it moved eastwards across the Gangetic Plains.

And finally terracotta reached Bengal, which had rich clay deposits but scarcely any stone. Owing to unavailability of stone for building temples and palaces, the medium of terracotta was explored as an artwork to fill in the void.  

This led to a defining terracotta art in architecture and bas-relief terracotta murals to flourish in Bengal, especially in the districts of Vishnupur, Bankura and Birbhum.  mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The terracotta temples that were mostly constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries still stand as mute witnesses to the flowering of terracotta art during that period.

And then this great impetus started tapering off. As Mukul Dey puts it, ‘… the old way of decorating temples and residential buildings has completely vanished. With the near extinction of the artisans, the traditional technique of the art has now disappeared. …’ And so, terracotta, a traditional folk art that attained the status of fine art, was relegated to a state of cold neglect for almost two centuries.

Rural artisans, who still practiced this art form, kept themselves engaged in it for love, habit or may be due to lack of any option for survival.

But a flicker of hope lighted up the terracotta artscape in late 20th century when an organisation named ‘Terra-Cottal’ was born in Kolkata.

According to an old newspaper report, people from such diverse backgrounds as engineering, finance, designing, visualising and sculpting came together to form Terra-Cottal. The renowned sculptor, late Prabhas Sen, set the ball rolling in 1987. He was worried about the art of terracotta dying out and spoke about reviving it. That was the beginning of Terra-Cottal.

Members of Terra-Cottal claimed that their attempt was also to show the high degree of technical excellence and perfection that this medium of burnt clay could be taken to. All designs were dictated by artistic considerations, usually simplification of forms easily identifiable and acceptable.

Therefore, Terra-Cottal’s unique Wall Mural Tiles, customised Murals, Wall Plaques and Sculptures met with national and international acclaim, and terracotta regained much of its lost glory. It also went on to become one of the finest examples of success stories towards revival of a vanishing art in contemporary India.

Unfortunately, it was destined not to last long. In 2003, when at the peak of fame and work excellence, Terra-Cottal closed down. With Terra-Cottal’s exit, a void was created somewhere deep inside Mukul Dey’s dream of reviving a vanishing art before it was too late.

With mechanised processes for architectural cladding work, and refinements in pottery work, the art form of terracotta remains a far cry from survival.     

Anindya Dutta Gupta is a PhD research scholar at Centre for Political Studies, JNU
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