Murtikala, the art of making terracotta votive murtis or religious idols is practised in Molela, a small town 40 km north of Udaipur, in Rajasthan. While, originally, the murtis were standing representations of local deities, the Mother Goddess, Nagdeva and various other forms, today they are often mounted on tiles or plaques to be hung on the walls of temples and homes. They can either have a natural terracotta hue, or can be multi-coloured, depending on the demand of the customer, and both varieties can be seen in various shrines and temples in Rajasthan and Gujarat. While the potters of Molela are known for – and draw their livelihood from – votive murtis and depiction(s) of heroes and heroines from traditional local legends, they also depict scenes that express what the artisan sees around him. Khemraj Kumhar, a master craftsman, once created a 6 feet by 4 feet panel, consisting of 24 tiles, depicting all the stages in a woman’s life.
The original inhabitants of Molela are the Mina and Bhil tribals, who have adopted icon worship into their own tribal systems of worship. During the month of January, every year, these and other tribal groups like the Gujars and Garijats, travel to Molela to buy clay plaques depicting the images of the Gods who have fulfilled their wishes. These tribal groups replace these votive icons every three to five years, in gratitude for the blessing(s) received.
There are approximately 24 potter families in Molela. They make an assortment of votive plaques and domestic clay vessels. The utensils are made on the wheel and the clay used for making them is more plastic than that used for making plaques. Like most crafts, murtikala has been passed down through generations, chiefly from father to son(s), though it evolves with each generation. Typically, the women do the work of getting the clay ready while the men make the murtis and decorate them. This practice is now being questioned as Himmat Lal, a potter inducted into this craft at the early age of 12, says: ‘I will train my daughters as well, why not?’
PROCESS AND MATERIALS
‘The red clay of our village, Molela, is said to be special – for the murtis made of clay from the other villages or by neighbouring families break easily,’ says Khemraj Kumhar. It is found on the banks of the nearby talaab (pond). Husk and donkey dung are kneaded into the clay for strengthening and tempering it. The winter harvest coincides with the busiest time for making murtis, for the hot summer sun is too harsh and often cracks the clay murtis.Once the clay has been kneaded to the right consistency, the craftsmen are ready to begin work. The entire process is done by hand without using a wheel or any mould. The slabs or tiles are made first, with the help of a pindi, which is used for pounding and flattening the clay. The pindi is made of a rounded stone with a groove at the top for holding it (refer photograph). The clay slab is then smoothened using a small flat piece of wood, about one foot by half a foot and approximately one inch thick. The scene to be depicted or the idol or murti to be made is then fashioned on the tile. Often small round kalash (urns) are made on the wheel and added to the murti. The design and the line work on the clay is done with a baldi, a small flat chisel-like instrument made of metal. Both ends of the baldi are used – one end for drawing lines and patterns on the clay and the other end for making holes. ‘The clay is a living thing’, says Khemraj Kumhar. ‘What final shape it takes is not known beforehand, not even to the potter who moulds it.’
The murtis are allowed to dry in the sun before they are considered ready for firing. If the final colour desired is terracotta, red geru (terracotta powder) is mixed with gum and used to cover the murti before firing. Depending on the season and the orders, firing can happen as often as once a month or as seldom as once in six months. The murtis are made to stand in an open kiln, and then covered with cow dung and shards of pottery. Wood is added slowly to keep the temperature constant. The craftsman knows when the right temperature has been reached by the colour of the glow and the height of the flames. Each firing takes about four hours and is usually done towards dusk. After the firing, bright water colours are used to decorate the freshly baked murtis.
Images of both male and female deities are represented. They could take the form of Nagadev (snake form), Mother Goddess, Dharamraj, Devnarain, Ganesh, and local heroes and heroines from folk legends dating back in time, who have now taken on divine powers and other forms.Terracotta images of the Mother Goddess, who blesses the devotees, are depicted and worshipped in various incarnations – Durga astride a lion, Chamunda on an elephant, and Kalika on a buffalo or holding a sword as Aswanmata. The 12-hooded serpent Nagadev, with several snake consorts, is a central figure. He is the guardian of the natural treasures of the earth. It is also the belief of the local people that their ancestors often return to the village as snakes. Bhairav, who protects the devotees from nightmares, bears a strong resemblance to Shiva. He holds a trident, a thunderbolt, a skull and a noose. Popular images also include those of Ganesh, whose blessings are invoked before beginning any new task. Devnarain, mounted on a horse holding a bhala, a spear and a lotus, is worshipped by the Gujars. He is attended by a serpent, cows, cowherds and peacocks, among others.
The craftsmen take orders and display their wares from their homes. They often make murtis and store them in anticipation of sales during the busy season. The customers, largely tribal, travel to Molela, accompanied by their priest, who helps them select the right image of their particular god. Once selected and sold, the priest leads the procession from Molela to the nearby river Banas where the deity is worshipped before returning home for installation in the shrine. The murti is always carried by the priest on his head, as a mark of respect for the deity. Payment is usually made in the form of money, coconut, cloth (red if it is a female deity and white if it is a male deity), grain or other offerings, depending on the custom of the temple or the individual buyer.
Intricacy of work and size together determine the price of a murti. Large murtis of Devnarain, a popular deity said to have been born from a lotus flower, could sell for as high as Rs 1000. The smaller ones, such as an 8 inch by 8 inch murti , may go for Rs 80, in the cities.
The demand for a potter’s work tends to be seasonal. New vessels and votive murtis are needed for rituals at festival and during harvest times. The craftsmen, therefore, turn to agriculture to sustain themselves in the lean months, growing wheat, corn, lentils and chillies. The important question is ‘How long will their traditions sustain them?’