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Terracotta Figured Roof Tiles of Odisha

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

Terracotta Figured Roof Tiles of Odisha

Prasad, Ritika

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Clay roof tiles – part of a pitched (sloped) roof system, with burnt clay tiles laid on (usually) a timber under-structure – are a quintessential feature in several parts of the Indian countryside. Clay roof tiles are appropriate for most parts of the country, except where strong winds and cyclones, and/or snow, are frequent. Good quality tiles, appropriately overlapped, are waterproof in ordinary climatic situations. The use of clay tile roofs in country areas where pottery skills exist and where timber (or alternative under-structure) costs are low satisfy several of the criteria for ‘appropriate’ building systems, as they utilise local materials and skills, promote self-reliance, and are both cost effective and energy efficient.

Techniques and Products
Clay tile production is an age-old cottage industry in several areas, specially rural zones, with potters making these tiles as part of their tradition repertoire of products: pots, storage and cooking vessels, images of deities, lamps, figurines, bird and animal shapes, and toys. Lokenath Rana and his son Ananta Rana belong to a traditional family of potters in Sonepur in Odisha and live in a mohalla (locality) of potters. What catches the eye from among the several interesting pieces that they display is a clay roof tile with a clay monkey sitting on it. This unusual embellishment on an essentially utilitarian item naturally leads to surprise; Ananta Rana, however explains that this tradition originated in the need to scare away wild animals. Odisha is one of the most heavily forested states in India, and those living in rural dwelling fringed by forests constantly fear wild animals that stray in from the jungle. These roof tiles with a figure on each – birds, squirrels, monkeys and mice being the most common – act somewhat in the nature of scarecrows. Naturally, only the uppermost layer of tiles on the roof has figures on it; sometimes the figures can be over a foot high. The animal figures are carefully detailed – somewhat surprisingly so considering where they are finally placed. However, as Lokenath Rana states, it is always interesting to create these tiles and as enjoyable to detail them. There is nothing inanimate about these figures: all the animals have expressions on their faces, and their body(ies) are depicted as fluid and mobile.

The clay tiles are made from clay procured from the banks of the Mahanadi river, a lovely mix of red and black. The variation in the colour range – from an earthy terracotta to a brown-black – is determined by the proportion of red clay and black clay in the mixture. Cooking vessels are often brown-black, while tiles and figurines are more red in colour.

The clay tiles are made from clay procured from the banks of the Mahanadi river, a lovely mix of red and black. The variation in the colour range – from an earthy terracotta to a brown-black – is determined by the proportion of red clay and black clay in the mixture. Cooking vessels are often brown-black, while tiles and figurines are more red in colour.

The ‘country’ roof clay tiles made by the Sonepur potters are long half cylinders in shape, and not flat like those made in several parts of the country. A hollow cylinder-shaped piece is created on the wheel; this cylindrical piece is then cut into half with a thread, creating two long semi-circular cylindrical tiles. The tiles are then dried and fired. The standard firing time is 12 hours or so. The animal figures are comprised of different parts created separately on the wheel and put together. The detailing is done by hand. Often wood chips are used to create particular designs on the basic shapes. Lokenath Rana, superbly dextrous, endows basic round clay pieces with eyes, a nose, whiskers, a tail, paws… and in a trice and a monkey, or a squirrel topped tile is ready. The process and techniques are not unique in themselves; however, the sheer skill and dexterity with which Lokenath Rana’s nimble fingers transform lumps of clay into all sorts of things – ranging from utilitarian items like tiles and cooking vessels to miniature elephants (less than 3 cm in height) and bird baths – is fascinating.

Among the other items of special interest made by the Sonepur potters is a particular stylisation of the Hindu monkey-god, Hanuman. This particular stylisation – in which the face of Hanuman, with his tail shown as curved up over his head (almost like a unicorn’s horn), is imposed on a four-legged horse-like shape – is peculiar to Sonepur. The entire figure is placed on a base with wheels, thus allowing it to be dragged with ease.

Markets
Ananta Rana states that that maximum sale occurs during the Puramavas festival at the time of the bhado amavasya. This festival is an important occasion in the lives of the potters in and around Sonepur, for almost all the wares they bring to the market at this time gets sold. The Hanuman figures are created specially for this festival and are sold in large numbers, along with utilitarian items like cooking and storage vessels, clay toys, and decorative pieces.

The market for clay roof tiles is expanding to urban areas, as people in towns and cities are re-discovering ecologically friendly, low-cost and aesthetic building materials and styles, often age-old ones imported from the rural countryside. However, this kind of demand is being met by organised mechanised production, rather than the cottage industry tradition which Lokenath Rana and his son are part of. Also, problems of cracking and breakage are being dealt with, in mechanised production, by using an using admixture of ammonium chloride. There is thus a lot of still untapped potential for the traditional clay tile industry, like the one at Sonepur, to re-invent itself as organised providers of an increasingly popular roofing material.

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