Lasting impression

Rajasthan art

Lasting impression

In Rajasthan, colours of the earth change with the shades of mud-covered walls, reflecting the subtle differences in the soil. The terracotta water pots, the cooking and storage vessels and the votive offerings either shaped on the wheel or moulded by hand by the Kumbhar potters here are nuanced to suit their village customers. While many villages in Rajasthan practise pottery as a craft form, it is the customary work in the village of Molela, which  makes it an important hub on the terracotta map.

Molela is about 45 km from Udaipur. The Kumbhar community here has for generations crafted terracotta deities for their traditional clients. The images of folk deities sculpted by them are particularly sacred in Rajasthan — like Dev Narainji and Pabuji, whose lives and heroic deeds are celebrated through ballads, worship and all-night recitals.

Other sacred folk heroes and heroines are Tejaji, Gora Bhairon, Kala Bhairon, Vasuki, Bhuna, Panchmukhi and others. The gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are additionally sculpted here in detail. In their range is Nagdevta, the many-hooded serpent god, whose worshippers  belong to animistic cults.

Priest’s choice

In the lunar month of Maag, which falls between January and February, the members of the Bhil, Mina, Garijat, Gujjar and other tribal communities travel to Molela with their Bhopa, the priest-bard of their sect, to select the image of their respective deities.

The deity chosen by the Bhopa is ceremoniously bathed in the nearby Bana river to the accompaniment of prayers and floral offerings before it is carried back to the village to be consecrated.

However long the return journey, the God-images are kept raised above waist level, not to be placed on the ground anymore. Payment for the idols is made either in the form of money or in exchange for cloth, grain or other offerings, depending on the devotee.

The unusual aspect of these sacred images is that they are not sculpted as standing idols, but are shaped onto plaque-tiles. These votives are thus to be ritually installed either on walls or placed in wall-recessed altars in the homes of the followers.

Creating the tile-plaques is done through a slow, steady building up of the base and the sculptural elements. It’s a task as the piece is entirely moulded by hand. The wheel is used to add fine details to the plaques.

The brick-red clay sourced from the river bed is of dense plasticity, characteristic of Molela’s soil. The Kumbhars here believe that it is the soil’s clay that lends itself to the moulding, and allows for the fine detailing of these long-lasting images. The tempo of the work appears unhurried as the clay is left to rest, settle and dry, and in the in-between stages a lot of work happens.

The task begins with preparing the clay by mixing it with rice chaff and donkey dung to increase its strength and malleability. It is flattened after it is kneaded thoroughly, then smoothened and evened using a stone tool. Holes are punctured into the slab to prevent it from cracking during the course of firing, thus allowing for expansion and hardening. The slab is then ready to be cut into the shape required, forming the base for the image.

The next stage is the build-up of the composite image of the deity or the scene to be depicted. The potters are well aware that their work must remain true to the accepted religious canon in order to pass the scrutiny of the Bhopa. Kneading, pinching, squeezing and forming the clay with their hands, the potters continuously refine the figures, pausing only to let it dry and set. The individual parts are joined and then detailed. Thinly rolled clay is then used to add an additional dimension.

Finally, the figure sculpted in relief is fixed to the prepared base and is dried in the sun to be readied for firing.

The fire in the kiln is lit at dusk and is stoked for about four hours with the plaques remaining in the embers till they cool off by dawn. The Kumbhars study the colours of the flame (without temperature gauges or controls), its height and its intensity to know when to add additional wood and gauge whether the firing will succeed. The firing is infrequent, dependent on the weather and on the size of the orders, varying from monthly in the winter to just about once in the summer and the monsoon period.

After the firing, the idols are painted in polychrome colours of deep blue, bright yellow, green, dark orange, red, yellowish orange and black. While the colour black is sourced from the soot formed on cooking pots, the other colours are no longer the mineral colours of the past, but are bought from local suppliers. If no colours are to be painted on, then brick-red geru mixed with gum is applied on the plaque before the firing to fix the deep terracotta colour.

At present there are over 20 Kumbhar families that follow their hereditary profession, their learning passing down through the generations. When not making the plaques, the potters make pots and wares required by the locals. And, as is customary in the rest of Rajasthan, it is the men who sit on the wheel and mould the figures while the women in the family prepare the clay.

Expanding themes

Molela came to national and international attention in the late 70s. The patriarch of the community, Mohan Lall Kumbhar, has travelled all over India and across the globe demonstrating his skills. Since then the illustrative content of their offering has expanded to embrace their new clientele and the demands of a relatively unknown world. The potters have become adept at producing wall plaques and murals from themes such as education for girls, village scenes, women’s empowerment and urban landscapes.

The plaques modelled in large sixes are seen in public buildings and urban homes.
While work continues apace in Molela, the potters face an increasing threat to their raw material source. The setting up of two brick factories in their vicinity has led to a rapid removal of the clay to fulfill their insatiable demand. It is their great fear that this encroachment will result in such depletion that in five years there will be no clay for them to produce their sacred icons.

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