Terracotta Clay Art or terracotta, taken from Latin terra cotta or baked earth, is the art of creating glazed or unglazed porous earthenware, figurines, and other decorative materials from clay which is dried and fired in temperatures of around 1000°C giving it a distinctly orange, red, brown, yellow, or grey colour. It is then covered in sand to allow it to cool down. This colour depends not only on the type of clay found in the beds of the water bodies in the area where the artist is based but also on the firing process.
For example, if the smoke from firing is allowed to get out through the vents in the kiln, a red or orange colour is obtained. On the other hand, if the vents are sealed, it gives the items a black colour. Decorative pieces are either left with their origin nail colour or painted in multiple hues to make them more attractive. Terracotta design items, when not cracked, give a ring when struck lightly with fingers.
History & Mythology
Terracotta is an ancient art form, perhaps one of the first expressions of creativity of the human mind. In fact, the use of the five elements: air, water, earth, fire, and ether in Terracotta art form lends it both an air of mystery and auspiciousness as per Hindu beliefs. Ter terracotta figurines of the mother goddess, male gods, and terracotta design cart frames and wheels dating back to around 7000 BC have been excavated from various sites of Indus Valley Civilization like Birhana, Mehrgarh, Mohenjodaro, etc. proving that the art flourished in the Indian subcontinent long before it was used elsewhere.
Terracotta also had an important role to play in the Is trade activities of this ancient civilization. Terracotta seals were used by merchants for stamping and human or animal terracotta figures carved on them. These seals also depict the apparels, hairstyles, ornaments, as well as religious beliefs of the people, apart from giving an idea of the script used by them.
In the rest of the world too, terracotta clay art has been in existence for thousands of years. In Egypt, Terracotta clay house models dating back to around 1900 BC have been excavated. These models were part of the burials of poor people and usually were replicas of their dwellings. Mesopotamian civilization was also, rich in arts and crafts and beautiful terracotta clay figurines of goddesses and small statues from around 19th century BC have been found by the archaeologists. Bell Idols or female statuettes having mobile legs from 8th century BC Greece is a noteworthy example of Terracotta clay art in the ancient world.
These bell idols were popular in Both Greece and Rome. Another terracotta wonder from the ancient world is the Terracotta Army of China from 210 BC, part of an ancient necropolis, and built by the emperor Qin Shi Huang. The King’s terracotta army consists of 6000 life-size terracotta soldiers guarding his tomb. The army is complete with soldiers, archers, horses, and chariots. What’s amazing about these soldiers is that as each of them has been made having different facial features.
Origin & Prevalence
Terracotta is the term used for unglazed earthenware, and for ceramic sculpture made in it. Indian sculpture made heavy use of terracotta from a very early period, and in more sophisticated areas had largely abandoned modelling for using moulds by the 1st century BC.
Terracotta art is an integral part of Indian culture and heritage. The art form has not been lost as many others have; rather it is flourishing and getting richer even now with artisans uninhibited in their imagination and creativity. Terracotta clay items are commonplace in Indian homes in one form or other, and artisans have kept the art alive from one generation to other.
West Bengal, Bihar & Orissa
West Bengal has a rich tradition of art and craft and terracotta is one of them. Rural areas of the state are a treasure trove of finely crafted terracotta pots, figurines including those of handsome horses. Some of the well-known towns for Terracotta art form are Murshidabad, Jessore, Birbhum, Digha, and Highly whereas terracotta art in Bihar goes back to the Mauryan period (2nd-3rd century BCE).
Darbhanga in Bihar is well known for its terracotta clay horses that are painted in bright rainbow colours on completion. Terracotta clay art in Odisha goes back to 4th century BC and the tribal artisans create unique designs using special clay which has many takers.
Gujarat & Rajasthan
Terracotta clay artisans from Gujarat, especially from Gundiyali in Bhuj district, use the potter’s wheel to create exquisite hand-painted clay pots with geometrical patterns almost identical to the ones excavated from the sites of Indus Valley civilization.
In Molela Village in Rajsamand, Rajasthan, deities are created with moulded clay on a flat surface.
Tamil Nadu & Karnataka
Tamil Nadu, the temple state of India and one steeped in thousands of years of history and rich cultural heritage is known for making large terracotta clay horses. In fact, villages of the state follow a tradition of having a huge terracotta clay horse (terracotta figure) guarding its entrance. This horse is a companion of Ayyanar, the Tamil Village God.
Jammu & Kashmir
In Jammu & Kashmir terracotta clay art has two distinctive forms. While one, made in Ladakh, consists of icons, statues, and images related to Buddhism and made mainly to cater to the various monasteries, the other consists of tea kettles, barley wine pots, kitchen stoves, oil lamps, etc.
Hand Molding versus Mass Production
The ancients used the pressure of their hands to painstakingly give shape to each terracotta clay tiles and item but with an increase in the type of uses and demand, moulds were made to start mass production. One of the first examples of the mass-produced terracotta figurines is that of ancient Greeks’ Tanagra figurines from later 4th Century BC.
Use of terracotta clay to supplement brick and tiles buildings became quite popular in late 1800s England and the US. The Victorian Bell Edison Telephone building is a fine example of terracotta architecture in Bir Immingham, England. The Natural History Museum in London also has a huge and highly ornate terracotta façade. Before this, it was also used in Germany in 1820s in the construction of churches.
However, in India, the trend of using cheap and readily available clay for building temples started a few centuries earlier. The 6th-century Bhitargaon (Uttar Pradesh, India) Hindu temple, built during the reign of Gupta Dynasty ty, has beautiful terracotta figure and panels that depict Shiva, Vishnu and aquatic monsters. Other, more famous, example of terracotta figure used in Indian architecture is the terracotta temples in Bishnupur, Bankura (West Bengal).
India exports exquisite terracotta tiles or items like statues vases, decorative hangings and bells, murals, Diwali oil lamps, etc. making the art form a rewarding one for the artisans. Though it would be impossible to find an Indian village without potters and other artisans, some states and cities are well known for their distinct Terracotta figure and ware.