Magical clayware

terracotta museum

Magical clayware

In today’s age of cosmopolitan living in ‘sterilised’ environments, we often equate clay with mud and dirt. But do you know that long before mankind discovered metal and plastic, clay was man’s best friend. Potters were significant persons in the society spinning clay into all forms of household goods – furniture, utensils, toys and deities.

Terracotta, meaning baked clayware, had an especially auspicious role in Indian culture, being compulsorily used in religious rituals. It was believed that terracotta encompasses all five elements of life – earth, water, fire, air and ether - making it the perfect material to create idols and offerings to God.

If the above information comes to you as a pleasant surprise, you must make a visit to the Museum of Indian Terracotta, Sanskriti Kendra. This museum, located on Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road, has much more beauty and wisdom to offer on terracotta.

In sync with the subject, a row of 11 small mud houses serve as the ‘Terracotta Museum.’ To start with, it takes you around all the soil types of India - Alluvial, Black, Red, Laterite, Marshy and Sandy. Ably-authored information boards explain the origin and use of each alongside carefully preserved samples.

Then starts the journey through the birth and development of terracotta art in India – broken pots from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, female figures from the Maurya period, Kaolin (white clay) models from South India and the first images of Buddha from the era of Kushanas.

Then each room demonstrates terracotta art from different States of India. Bengal is the first to feature with its unique tree shrines dedicated to Mansha – the snake goddess. These are created in Bankura for worship during Naag panchami. Praying to these terracotta idols relieves one of poisoning, snake bites and infertility, so it is believed.

The Bihar pavilion has familiar terracotta figures of Hindu gods and goddesses – Shiv, Durga, Bramha, Saraswati – which are worshipped during festivals and then deposited in rivers to merge with clay again. Odisha, on the other hand, boasts of grand Tulsi chauras – planters for the holy Tulsi – a must in Hindu households.

Chhattisgarh reflects beautiful tribal art with painted clay relief work made by women of the Rajwar community. Clay and cowdung are mixed to create domestic partition screens and relief work on walls. These are then doused with wet white clay and painted with natural colours. Women compete to make their house look the most beautiful, we are told.

Azamgarh, UP impresses with its black pottery. Artisans here mix mustard oil in the clay to create these dazzling black pots. Further, a mix of lead, zinc and mercury is used to draw silver patterns. Far-away Manipur also attracts you with its characteristic hand-modelled pottery. Goddess Panthoibi is said to have herself taught this art to the local women.
The large, tongue-flaring Aiyanar horses of Tamil Nadu are, of course, the pride of Sanskriti Terracotta museum. People of Salem and Pudukottai districts believe that lord Aiyanar rides down their fields every night driving away demons and bad luck. Hence the villagers install these terracotta horses in his honour.

Further, the museum also has an international artists’ residency. Foreign artists can stay here, draw inspiration from Indian arts and create their own. We see two pen stands in terracotta in the shape of an open-mouthed fish and frog each; interesting combination of tradition and modernity.    

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