You probably know at least one person who has taken a terracotta pottery class, but did you know that the technique of creating terracotta pottery, which is now a popular hobby, actually dates back to 2600 to 1700 BC? You guessed right, the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeological excavation at Mohenjodaro, Harappa and many other places have in fact uncovered various terracotta pots and vessels.
The making of terracotta pottery is no ordinary process. Each terracotta pot or piece of art is created by a fascinating process with grace and dedication and the time taken to make such a masterpiece is what makes terracotta so valuable and expensive.
How it is made
Terracotta means “baked earth” in Italian. Terracotta is the type of clay used to produce terracotta pottery on a potter’s wheel. The potter at a full tilt rotates the wheel with his hands and gives the ball of clay a shape. The pot or object, after being left to dry is kept on top of combustible materials in a pit and fired. Mostly charcoal, wood or coconut shells are used for firing and the temperatures may range from 600 to 1000 deg C. The process is complete only after the pottery has been baked for more than two hours to ensure it is hard, strong and durable.
Even then, given the nature of the clay, terracotta pottery is porous and water can seep through these pots. However, a coat of glaze can fix that, making the pots water tight. Thus, terracotta is usually of two types, glazed and unglazed. The glazed pots are easy to clean and food gets cooked evenly in them. However, numerous benefits are lost, like the maintenance of the acid-alkaline balance as well as the earthy flavour that unglazed terracotta adds to the food.
Terracotta is usually reddish or brown in colour and is considered to be the first ingenious expression of civilization. From the small earthen pots in which we store water to the giant-sized cultic equestrian figures of the rural Tamil deities of the Aiyanar cult, terracotta art occupies a consequential place in Indian life and culture. It has broken all the principles of Shilpasastra or sculpting and gives itself enormous freedom in terms of imagination and conception, allowing the potter to translate his emotions and thoughts into a work of art.
Terracotta across India
The Jhabua and Bastra tribes of Madhya Pradesh are known for their tradition of making terracotta pottery. The tribes of Madhya Pradesh create clay temples called dhabhas which have a small door, wherein the deity is placed along with the fire lamp. Terracotta objects produced by the Jhabua tribes are believed to possess tantric powers.
Gujarat is known for its spectacular hand-painted clay products, such as beautiful clay animals and home décor items using the potter’s wheel to perfection, painted with catchy colours and geometric patterns. Haryana again, is famous for its clay hukkas and pipes. Exquisite wall hangings, flower vases, cups, water pots, lamps and intriguing animal figures are other creations from this state.
The Aiyanar community in Tamil Nadu is also known for their terracotta work. They create giant realistic looking figures of horses and elephants. The villagers believe that their gods will ride these vahanas and protect the villagers as well as passers-by.
Functional and decorative
Almost every Indian household utilises some kind of product obtained from pottery, like earthen pots to grow plants, pitchers for storing water, table ware, clay sculptures and terracotta bells that are finely crafted to make an ideal decor item for indoors as well as outdoors. These items are often in great demand during the festive season.
Terracotta tiles have a long history in many parts of the world. If you observe an agraharam in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, you will notice that the roofing tiles are made from terracotta. In the 19th century the prospect of terracotta spangle on buildings was highly appreciated by architects. American architect Louis Sullivan is celebrated for his glazed terracotta ornamentation.
Terracotta is also used for fish breeding. A pot is kept inside the tank to make it convenient for the fish to lay eggs. The breeding pot also changes the look of the fish tank and improves the quality of water, which in turn generates good quality eggs.
In ancient times, people from all strata of society are known to have worn jewellery made from clay, wood, animal bones and ivory exhibiting their interest in making them look better. Terracotta jewellery, however, has survived the test of time. Thanks to the variety of colours and patterns it is available in, terracotta ornaments are once again very much in vogue.
A known facilitator of terracotta art, Hema Balakrishnan runs a company called Colour D Earth where she works with terracotta and other artists to create and promote eco-friendly art and products. With a BA in Psychology, Sociology and Public Administration, Hema’s aim is to promote green living. This idea was born when she joined a clay hobby class with her toddlers. Another known facilitator of the art form is Bangalore-based Shashi Bagchi who owns Maati, the terracotta store. Shashi has managed to unite potters and terracotta artists in Bangalore for her venture that promotes the art form.
Terracotta is truly an art form to be appreciated. Being one of the oldest art forms, it has withstood the test of many civilizations. That’s why owning a terracotta artefact or piece of jewellery is like owning a piece of history.
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