Models in clay

craft

During the late medieval period, the terracotta art of Bishnupur (Bankura) began under the Malla dynasty and emerged as one of the finest arts of the Bengal region. Bankura horses are prime examples of this ancient art.

Artistic Bankura horses are rare works of art.

Khumbhokars or potters of Bankura create exquisite horses out of clay, in a village called Panchmura, which is 16 miles from Bishnupur, in West Bengal. This handcrafted clay horse is acclaimed for its statuesque elegance, and is the crest motif of the All India Handicrafts Board. Striking features of the Bankura horse are its wide jaws, visible set of teeth, forehead and prominent eyebrows. It has an erect neck and ears, and a straight lined body.

Bankura horses are considered to be ridden by Dharmaraj (Sun God), and are therefore offered as a token of devotion to folk deities by the locals. A pair of Bankura horses is also used for interior decoration now, as they add an earthen and traditional Indian look to home décor. In addition to horses, elephants are also a part of Bankura clay modelling. Besides terracotta, these are also made in dokra and wood.

Mixing clay

To begin with, base terracotta clay should be smooth enough to be turned into proper shape on the potter’s wheel. So, impurities like stones and particles are removed, and the clay is turned into powder. Dried paddy plants, sand and water are then added to this soft clay. Mixing clay and all other materials is done either by hands, or khumbhokars use their legs to mix the clay, especially if the quantity is more. The time taken for this process ranges from 2-3 hours to 5-6 hours, depending upon the labour and work conditions involved.

A male member of the family then works on the potter’s wheel. Most parts of the horse — legs, jaws and the stomach — are made separately on the wheel. Two parts which make up its neck, and seven parts which make up the horse’s face, are also set into shape separately on the wheel. The tail and the ears are molded on the side and attached to the horse’s body later on. The parts that have come off the wheel are placed in direct sunlight and are protected from rains. Hardening the pieces in excess is avoided. Thus, during hot and humid days, the parts are covered with cloth to protect them from excessive drying.

Once the pieces are dried partially, care is taken to give basic shape and structure to the horse. Small holes are left in the body for the tail and the head to be attached later on. The surface of the horse is then smoothened out with the help of a small piece of semi-circular bamboo known as chiari, and additional clay is used to bring the horse to shape. The upper and lower parts of the body are put together during this process. Motif work is generally done by the women of the family. All parts of the horse’s body have similar motifs.

Natural drying

The pieces are then dried in the sun for a while, after which appropriate holes are made in the body of the horse. This is done to enable uniform drying of the inner and outer parts of the horse, or else cracks may develop due to incomplete drying. Complete dehydration is then done in a closed room for 6-7 days.

After being brought out of the room, they are dried in the sun again, and colouring is done before the terracotta horses go inside the kiln. The colours used are of three varieties — khadigad which is chalk white; bhalogad which has yellowish tones, is glazy and oily; and banak which is brownish, oily and glazy. The three pigments are mixed in water and applied on the animal figurines.

These coloured figurines are then fired in the kiln, a process which takes about a month. Red, which is the natural terracotta colour for Bankura horses, is obtained by allowing the smoke to come out of the kiln, and black is obtained by sealing the vents and keeping the black smoke in.

Panchmura clay pottery is the most refined of the four main varieties of pottery including Rajagram, Sonamukhi and Kamirpur. Its shapes and curves, which lie in symmetry, and its subtle motif-work, are all remarkable. The potters of Bankura, inspired by the historical tales of kings, warriors and battles of the region, bring to us one of India’s most beautiful handicrafts, the Bankura horse.

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