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The Sacred Icon Terracotta Plaques of Molela, Rajasthan

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

The Sacred Icon Terracotta Plaques of Molela, Rajasthan

Sethi, Ritu

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In Rajasthan the colours of the earth change as we cross the region with the shades of the mud covered walls reflecting the subtle differences in the soil. Terracotta water-pots, the cooking and storage vessels, the votive offerings either shaped on the wheel or moulded by hand by the Kumbhar potters here are nuanced to suit their local village customers. Amongst the many villages in Rajasthan where the craft of pottery continues to be practiced it is the customary work of Molela that makes it an important hub on the terracotta map.

Molela is a largish village about 45 kms from Udaipur. The Kumbhar community here have for generations crafted terracotta deities for worship by their traditional clients. The images of folk deities sculpted by them are those that 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 legendary sacred folk heroes and heroines such as Tejaji, Gora Bhairon, Kala Bhairon, Vasuki, Bhoona, Panchmukhi and others. The gods and mother-goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are additionally sculpted here in iconographic detail. In addition their range includes the Nagdevta, the many-hooded serpent god worshipped since ancient times, whose believers are rooted in animistic cults and in mainstream worship.

In the lunar month of Maag, that 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 choice made by the Bhopa, the deity is ceremoniously bathed in the nearby Bana River to the accompaniment of prayers and floral offering before being carried back to the village to be consecrated.  However long the journey back 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 or the custom of the shrine.

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 the wall or placed in wall-recessed altars in the homes of the followers and in shrines.

The process of creating these votive tile- plaques is through the slow, steady building up of the base and the sculptural elements. The task itself a drawn out process as the piece is entirely molded by hand. The wheel is not used for any of the stages except when fine details need to be added to the plaques.

The brick-red clay sourced from the riverbed is of a dense plasticity characteristic of the soil of Molela. The Kumbhars here believe that it is the clay from this soil that lends itself to the molding and allows for the minute fine detailing of these long-lasting images. What they take for granted is that the images they sculpt, based on their deep knowledge of the iconographic aspects of the god-figure, is what makes their votives acceptable to the Bhopas.

The handling of the clay and the skill of the potter is apparent from their in-depth knowledge of materials and process and their sure hand in modelling the symbolic aspects of the imagery. While the tempo of the work appears unhurried as the clay is left to rest, settle and dry between stages a lot of work still seems to get a done.

The task begins with preparing the clay by mixing it with rice-chaff and donkey-dung to increase its strength and make it more malleable. Kneaded thoroughly it is flattened, smoothening and evened using a stone tool. Holes are punctured into the slab to prevent it from cracking during the course of firing, thus allow 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 buildup of the composite image of the deity or the scene to be depicted. The potters 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 permit for drying and setting. The individual parts are joined together and then detailed, thinly rolled clay is 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. Without temperature gauges or controls the Kumbhars study the colors of the flame, 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 black color is sourced from the soot formed on cooking pots the other colors no longer the mineral colors of the past but bought from local suppliers. If no colors 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 color.

At present there are a little over twenty Kumbhar families that follow their hereditary profession, the learning passing down through the generations. When not making the plaques the potters make pots and other items 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.

In the late 1970’s the village of Molela came to national and international attention. 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 that included education of the girl-child, to village scenes, women empowerment and urban landscapes. The plaques modeled in large sixes are seen in public buildings and urban homes.

While work continues apace in Molela the potters are faced by an increasing threat to their very raw material source. The setting up of two brick factories in their vicinity has led to a rapid removal of the clay to fulfill its 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.

First published in the Sunday Herald.

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