The Art of Terracotta & its Tradition in Bengal
The word ‘terracotta’ has been derived from the Latin phrase “terra cocta”, which means ‘baked earth’. Terracotta can be simple defined as clay based earthenware. It is something that we see everywhere. From the roadside tea shop to the flower pots in our balconies, it is part of our daily lives.
Terracotta craft is more or less the same as its name. It refers to the art of shaping clay into beautiful designs and then baking them at high temperature, to grant them stiffness and stability.
Simple as it may sound and common as it might be, the history and tradition of terracotta is amazingly rich and grand.
The origin of terracotta dates back to several thousand years. From the Indus Valley Civilization to ancient Mesopotamia, from the Greek civilization to the Chinese dynasties, terracotta has been widely used by people across the globe.
Often also described as clay craft, terracotta signifies man’s first attempt at craftsmanship. An integral part of the terracotta creations, the potter’s wheel, is recognized as the first machine invented to use the power of motion for a productive purpose. The universal appeal and charm has prompted pottery to be termed as the lyric of handicrafts.
It has been a common practice in archeological and historical studies for many years, to date and assess civilizations by the degree of skill and beauty that it has displayed by the earthenware found during their excavations.
The earliest usage of terracotta in India can be traced back to more than 5000 years during the Indus Valley Civilization. Since then, it has been used for innumerable purposes and historical evidences of that is scattered all across the country.
As in the rest of the world and the country, terracotta has a long, deep and glorious relation with Bengal. In fact, Bengal’s contribution to the art of terracotta is, without any exaggeration, incomparably superior and outstanding.
Bengal is famous for several unique arts and crafts, all of which lend a distinctive identity to its culture. The terracotta craft is one such exclusive craft that Bengal has perfected and applied through its incredible sculptures and murals. The earliest history of terracotta sculptures start from the Mauryan Age (324-187 BC), though there are some evidences of pre-Mauryan sculptures also are as found in Harinarayanpur and Pandu Rajar Dhibi of West Bengal.
The finest patterns of terracotta panels can be found in Bengal towns of Murshidabad, Birbhaum, Bishnupur, Hooghly and Digha. The theme is generally folk and the patterns are fairly highlighted with traditional skill and explicit artwork.
The terracotta craft in Bengal started flourishing in the 16th century, when the Bengali culture came in influence of the Vaisnava movement, led by Sri Chaitanya. Interestingly, the Malla rulers of Bankura took initiative to popularize both the Vaisnava sect and the new kind of terracotta art, which would depict the Krishna sect on the beautiful temples built by them. Most of the temples with terracotta pattern were built around late 16th through 19th century. The temples of Bishnupur and Kalna are one of the finest examples of terracotta craft seen anywhere in the world.
The clay used in terracotta craft is generally a blend of two or more types of clays, found in river beds, pits and drains. They are blended together and then given beautiful shapes and patterns. The folk theme is used in the craft most of the times. The pattern is beautifully highlighted with traditional expertise and precise artwork. The items are then baked in kilns, operated at temperature between 700 and 800 degree centigrade. Most of the times, local fuels, like twigs, dry leaves or firewood, are used in the kiln.
Terracotta, today is used in various forms, and is commonly used both in rural and urban lives. Most rural households use terracotta feeding bins for cattle, tea mugs, clay pots for cooking rice, plates, tumblers, yoghurt pots. Most of the items though are of the use and throw variety. They also make solid clay toys and dolls which are cast in burnt clay moulds. Large figurines of gods and goddesses are also made in clay. The best examples of it are the idol makers of Kumartuli in Kolkata.
Over thousands and thousands of years, terracotta has traversed an incredible journey. It has been an integral part of civilizations, shaped vast empires and enriched powerful dynasties. Today those civilizations have been erased, the empires lost and the dynasties have fallen, yet terracotta is still as integral part of our lives as it has been for several millenniums.