Every year various world heritage days and weeks come around, and gets us thinking about the diversity in our country. Not the usual ‘India-is-a-melting-pot-of-cultures’ bit, but more of the indigenous arts that seldom make it past research papers and GI-tag applications. Beyond the shiny world of gemstones in Jaipur and Kanjeevaram saris are a host of medieval and ancient traditions—ones that are on the path to fading out, lest we pay attention. One of them is pottery; beautiful designs of pots, toys, decorations and divinities that are emblematic of a community’s heritage and links to the outside world. Here, we’ve outlined four unique pottery traditions from India that you should know of:
Rajasthan’s Molela Murtikala
Nestled in Rajsamand district, Molela seems a nondescript village to many. It’s often in the shadow of Udaipur, which lies about 15 kilometres away. However, the village has a community of artisans that have garnered a name for themselves by developing an art style known as the Molela murtikala, where votive terracotta idols are made for use on flat surfaces like tiles and plaques.
A unique art style, it’s also got a unique audience: tribal communities from Madhya Pradesh! In a practice existing for generations, tribals arrive in the beginning of the year to buy the terracotta plaques—brightly painted—from these potters. The shopping spree is ritualistic, as they’re accompanied by a priest, and usually focuses on acquiring plaques depicting the deities Devnarayan and Nagaraja, with specific colours ascribed to each deity. The votives are changed every year, and is believed to protect the tribals from bad luck. The demand for Molela murtikala also rises during the harvest and festival periods in Rajasthan. Potters prefer using the gentle winter sun to dry the clay, and aside from meeting religious demand, also mould scenes depicting the scenery around them.
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What’s interesting is that the entire process is done by hand; there’s no potter’s wheel. Women tend to make the clay mixture, using soil from the nearby Banas river, animal dung, and rice husk, while men shape and decorate the murtis.
However, the practice isn’t enough to sustain the villagers beyond the festive seasons, with many turning to agriculture to support their families. The art form has gained some traction, but mainstream visibility remains low. Artist Mohanlal Chandrabhuj Kumar was conferred the Padmashree in 2012 for his efforts in popularising and preserving this centuries-old tradition; he also established the Mohan Terracotta Art Research & Development Centre, where you can enjoy demos, workshops and exhibitions. Another award-winning artisan is Mukhesh Prajapat, who runs the Bhairav Terracotta Art Centre. Udaipur railway station also covered an entire wall with Molela’s charming reliefs, piquing the interest of all who pass through.
What do hookahs, crucifixes and wash basins have in common? They’re all items that can be seen in the manufacture of bidriware, a striking form of black pottery made almost exclusively in Bidar, the ancient capital of the Deccan. Encouraged by the Bahmanid rulers of the city around 400 years ago, the creation of bidriware follows a process called ‘damascening’, where pure silver designs are engraved into items made of an alloy of zinc, copper, earth and non-ferrous metals. The items are then dipped into a unique concoction prepared using soil from the Bidar fort, which oxidises the alloy into a lustrous black shade.
The silver designs, featuring creepers and flowers, geometric styles and human figures, stand out. The final creations can be distinguished into two types: teh-nishan, the deeply cut designs, and zar-nishan, which, according to the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation, resembles the encrusted wares of Thanjavur. The state’s got the highest number of GI-tag products in the country, so we’re going to take this specific comparison at face value.
Bidriware artists generally fare better in terms of earnings compared to other indigenous crafts.
We’re not sure about the nomenclature—whether the city was named after the handicraft, or it went the other way—but despite the lack of knowledge and limited number of artisans, it’s still a major status symbol, and a major decorative export to the US, Europe and Gulf nations. It also holds pride of place in tangible heritage collections—we just revisited the iconic (and very comprehensive) display at the National Museum in Delhi.
West Bengal’s Terracotta Pottery
Show a picture of the Bankura horse to any Bengali, and they’ll show you a picture in return of their living room. Be it a tabletop variant or an eight-feet high sculpture, it’s one of the most well-known manifestations of West Bengal’s long heritage of terracotta pottery, and found in every other household.
Bengal’s traditional community of potters are the kumbhakars, and they engage in making everything from terracotta pots, toys, sculptures, wind chimes to temple panels. While a lot of the terracotta is considered complete after applying a burnt red wash, you’ll spot several intricately painted wares at craft melas and exhibitions, with scenes from epics, nature and folk tales. Most of the final touches are made by women, because the kumbhakars usually deploy a clear division of work: the men operate the wheel and fashion whatever is possible on it, while the women make the round bottoms of pots, the smaller figurines and dolls, and paint vibrant motifs.
Terracotta temple decorations can be found in Bankura, Murshidabad, Nadia, Digha, Bishnupur, Burdwan and Hooghly. Figures of horses, elephants, monkeys and other animals were originally used in village rituals for wish fulfillment, but now hold decorative value.However, the divine ties in Bengal’s terracotta pottery continues with the creation of ‘ghats’ or auspicious pottery. They’re well-known in the state, but are usually unheard of beyond the Ganga delta. Famous ghats are made for the goddess of wealth Lakshmi (usually paired with one for Ganesh), Krishna and Radha (called tulsimancha) and Manasha, the snake goddess (where the deity’s face is accompanied by hooded snakes).
Uttar Pradesh's Black Clay Pottery
Nizamabad’s black clay pottery likely originated from Kutch’s artistic traditions, when potters migrated to Uttar Pradesh during the reign of Aurangzeb. It’s meant to be a ‘100 per cent export-oriented’ product, but the artisans in Azamgarh and Mau districts, which are the main hubs for the potters, are yet to reach a comfortable level of recognition, respect and job security.
This pottery tradition is visually similar to Karnataka’s bidriware, but its manufacturing process is quite different. While bidriware uses an eight-step casting process that’s partly entrenched in metallurgy, Nizamabad’s pottery is on the organic side, made with finely-textured local clay from ponds. The creations—mostly utensils, religious figurines and decorative items—are washed with powdered vegetable matter, followed by a good rubbing of mustard oil. Sharp twigs are then used to etch out patterned grooves, and the pottery is then smoke fired with rice husks in enclosed kilns. This soot is what creates the shiny black surface. After another round of rubbing, followed by baking, the grooves are filled with a silvery powder of zinc, mercury or other metal amalgams, ending with a final round of polishing.
Gujarat’s Khavda Pottery
We’ve briefly covered Gujarat’s khavda pottery before, made exclusively from a kind of clay called ‘Rann ki mitti’ found in Ludia village in Bhuj. However, the pottery’s history and current circumstances warrants another mention. Would you believe us if we told you that it’s a tradition that’s carried on from the Indus valley civilisation?
Incredibly, the khavda pottery style is identical to excavated pottery found in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro from almost 5,000 years ago. Somehow having travelled to the Kutch region, the style sees men shape the ‘rann ki mitti’ into utensils and decorative wares. After they are fired, the pottery is coated in a thin wash of geru, a local soil, which lends a subtle warm colour. Women then decorate the wares with dots of clay-based paint (red, white, and black) using bamboo twigs. The designs are usually inspired by nature.
Writing about khavda potters in plural is a mistake, though, because the tradition is currently kept alive by a single family in the village. Abdul Ibrahim, his wife Rahima, and his mother are the only artists still engaged in the work, with others having shifted to more dependable sources of income. The family sustains the craft with great difficulty as a labour of lovel commissions, workshops and visiting tourists keep their business alive.
These five traditions of pottery are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our country’s hyperlocal pottery traditions. As always, supporting these local artists is an important part of keeping these cultures alive.