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Terracotta Art


Terracotta Art is the earliest form of plastic art in which the Bengal artists excelled. The art products in terracotta or burnt clay satisfied the creative impulse of the artists and also met the domestic and ritual needs of ordinary man. Clay objects were either baked in the sun or burnt into terracotta for hardening and durability and were used by man in his daily life since pre-historic times.

Due to paucity of stone and the complex technology involved in metal sculpture, the artistic desire of Bengali artists found expression in clay, which was abundantly available, and it hardly involved either any complex technical know-how or any heavy financial involvement. Thousands of untutored artists produced innumerable terracotta objects from pre-historic time (pandu rajar dhibi). The abundant finds of objects made of terracotta in Bengal is a sure evidence of the use of clay as a most common and popular medium of art expression of the people from the very dawn of civilisation in this deltaic land.

The art was practised in Bengal from the earliest through early medieval to medieval times and even persisted on Hindu monuments till the mid-nineteenth century. The art is noticed in all forms - small clay figurines, clay sculptures in the round, but the most notable ones are the plaques. Terracotta panels and friezes, used as surface decoration on brick buildings, are Bengal's remarkable contributions to the sum-total of South Asian art.

Terracotta plaques were known to art historians from the finds at ancient sites like bangarh and Mahasthan. Their beauty and significance was revealed with Dikshit's (kn dikshit) excavation at paharpur, where was found the biggest haul. The finds at mainamati monuments gave a further boost to the realisation that the terracotta plaques belonged to a whole art tradition covering the entire geographical region. In recent years the discovery of the Chandraketugarh-Tamralipti and Harinarayanapur series in West Bengal and the Mangalkot-Saralpur-Palashbadi (near Mahasthan, Bogra) series in Bangladesh have added new dimensions to the development of this art. The chandraketugarh and allied series, which belong to a period between 300 BC and 300 AD, were made long before the Mainamati-Paharpur series and their style and themes are very different. The mangalkot and allied terracottas belong to the 6th-7th centuries AD and they belong to an art tradition that is strikingly different from anything found so far in Bangladesh. They are beautiful and they draw some of their themes from the Brahmanical lore depicting stories from the Ramayana. Now it appears that there were more than one terracotta art traditions in Bengal and in spite of this variation there was a continuity in the tradition till medieval and even post-medieval times.

Plaques were partly moulded and partly hand modelled. The main purpose of these terracotta plaques in the early period was to decorate the walls of the temples and to break monotony of the severe plainness of the temple walls.

These plaques had another purpose - they also served as sources of instructions and recreations for the pilgrims. The subject matters not only included the gods and goddesses of the Hindu and Buddhist pantheon but also documented the day to day life of the people. The terracotta modellers reflected the various aspects of life as led in palaces, in plain dwellings of the common people and in the huts of the poor people. Such documentation of life of common people has added to the importance of terracotta art of Bengal.

Elephant hunting, Terracotta plaque, Paharpur

The terracotta plaques covered huge area of a temple complex. Such a stupendous work required the services not of a single modeller, but that of an entire guild of modellers. They were required to produce plaques in quicker rate and that was why they apparently could not concentrate to the aesthetic quality of the plaques. The plaques are found to be not of uniform size, neither they were uniformly fired. Some times the composition within a plaque crossed the outer frames.

The recent discovery of the Palasbadi-Saralpur hoard lying in the northern region of Bangladesh includes fifty-five uniform sized terracotta plaques which are inscribed in the later Gupta script of the last half of seventh and eighth centuries AD. The story of the Ramayana is inscribed. The plaques, as we can assume, were used for decorating the faces of some Vaisnava temples erected in the neighbouring region.

From an analysis of the themes illustrated in the Palasbadi-Saralpur hoard one can clearly see how the artists were involved with local rites and rituals. These could be seen in the scenes like depicting the death of Dasharatha, the marriage of Rama and Sita, which was associated with various local festivals like adhivasa, Kanya-sampradana (handover a daughter to the bridegroom) etc. Looking at the details of the story narrated, there is reason to believe that in spite of the strong influence of the Gupta terracotta tradition, the terracotta art of this category had intimate connection with ethnic and local roots. The modelling shows delicacy of the Gupta heritage, but the composition of the sculpture and the detailed rendering of the stories reveal the local elements which were beginning to emerge in varying processes. 

Terracotta ornamentation, Atiya Jami Mosque, Tangail

The use of terracotta art in adorning architectural buildings seems to have undergone a total eclipse in Bengal after the Palas, possibly under the pressure of the heretic art of the succeeding periods.

For centuries after Paharpur and Mainamati, we do not find evidence of the continuity of this art form. It can be assumed, however, that in the villages, this narrative art was kept alive through various forms and mediums such as scroll painting, idol making, lacquer-painted wooden manuscript covers etc.

The reappearance of the practice of using carved bricks in the ornamentation of the architectural monuments dates from the 14th-15th century, in the early Muslim period. The difficulty of obtaining stones in this deltaic country forced the Muslim builders to depend more and more on bricks and hence in the work of decorating such buildings, the age-old terracotta art was utilised. The terracotta panels adorning the Muslim monuments depict designs of abstract, geometric and floral patterns only. Terracotta panels were extensively used on Muslim buildings; the exquisite floral and geometric carvings replacing the animal and human figures of the earlier times. The Anatolian and central Asian technique of the Turkic world, which had its own age-old tradition of the art, enriched terracotta decorations on Muslim buildings.

Surya (the Sun God), Mahasthan

Terracotta plaques continued to be used on mosques and other Muslim buildings throughout the Iliyas Shahi and Husain Shahi periods of Bengal history. In the early phase the terracotta ornamentation of the adina mosque (1375) at pandua shows the employment of local folk motifs along with Muslim geometric and abstract patterns, but not yet integrated. The integration was evolved in the eklakhi mausoleum (1415-32) and a synchronised use of local art motifs with those characteristically Muslim, gave birth to a common art formula in Bengal. Muslim terracotta art in Bengal thus developed a hybrid style with a distinct personality of its own. Terracotta was raised to the status of a major art in Muslim architectural ornamentation.

Terracotta ornamentation occurred least during the Afghan interregnum (1538-75) and also under the Mughals, the latter preferred plaster decoration. The art continued a staggering existence till the end of the 17th century and was reduced to a mere skeleton of its past glorious self. However, from the 16th century onwards there had been a revival in the temples of the Hindus, built after Sri chaitanya's all-pervading influence in Bengal. The extant brick-built temples contain terracotta plaques representing human activities of various kinds-scenes of various epics and myths as well as of secular life. The reintroduction of the art by the Muslims as decorative elements of buildings led to its adoption by the temple builders in a more developed form with human and animal figures. On a few monuments of the late 16th century, namely Bainchigram temple in Hughli (1580), Vaidyapur temple in Bardhaman (1598) and Rasamancha of Bir Hambir at Bishnupur, the figured subjects are relatively few in number and the floral designs resemble those of the Muslim monuments. But the temples of Gokarna in Murshidabad (1590) and Rainagar in Jessore (1588), the terracotta plaques include larger number of deities, which set the pattern for the later temples. Large number of surviving temples in Bengal was built in the last quarter of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century.

The decoration of the temples with finely chiselled terracotta plaques usually followed a definite pattern. In most cases, the frontal facades were mainly decorated while the other sides either had one or two large plaques or were left bare except for a few rows of plaques with geometric designs. However, a few temples were lavishly decorated, the best example of which is provided by the kantanagar temple at Dinajpur. In the ornamentation of temple walls the most frequent subjects are from the Ramayana and the life and activity of Krsna. The mythological story of Kamale-kamini, popularised in Bengal by the Mangalkavya poets, has also been depicted on quite a few temples. The poor terracotta artists, who belonged to a lower stratum of the society, had a strong power of observation and thus they had provided in their work a visual evidence of the society around them. So these plaques are highly significant as sources for social history.

Terracotta figurines Excavations at Mahasthan, Paharpur, Sabhar and Mainamati in Bangladesh have laid bare many terracotta figurines that have bearings on the cultural history of the country. There has been an extreme paucity of the Mauryan terracotta objects from the archaeological sites in Bangladesh. It is surprising that although Mahasthan area was under the political sphere of the Mauryas yet the site yielded only two terracotta female figures, which are, on stylistic grounds, placed in the Mauryan period. The associated materials that came out along with these two figurines were a few NBP pot-sherds and punch-marked coins and these associated finds corroborate the dating of the above two terracotta figurines. Ichnographically, these two female busts have been identified as representing Yaksinis.

Terracotta figurine, Mainamati

In Bangladesh, Shunga terracotta figurines have been discovered at Mahasthan in Bogra district. Besides human figurines a few terracotta animal and bird figurines have also been discovered. The figurines of this period served both religious and secular ends.

In the 2nd-1st century BC ie, in the so-called Sunga period modellers art gained quite popularity. Not only the number of figurines increased in this period but also the period showed a preference for single moulded terracotta figurines. The Sunga figurines are folk in character. The dress, costumes, coiffures and jewelleries that are found on the Sunga terracotta specimens are also noticed on the stone reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi and Bodhgaya.

The modellers produced images of Surya, Laksmi, Mother goddess, Yaksini with panchachuda and Vasudhara and they also for the first time attempted to produce certain narrative panels with stories of Shakuntala. The Sunga terracotta figurines in Bangladesh, in most cases, have holes at their tops, provided with the idea to hang them on the walls and thereby they served as pieces for interior decorations. It is to be noted that the Sunga modellers in Bangladesh did not produce a single male figure.

The Kushana period in Bangladesh presented a very grim picture. The number of terracotta figurines produced in this period had abnormally gone down. Bangladesh produced only three female terracotta figurines in this period. Thus we find that the modellers in Bangladesh, for reasons unknown, produced only female figurines from the Mauryan to the Kusana period.

The terracotta figurines of Bangladesh reached its highest stage of artistic excellence in the Gupta period. About thirty terracotta figurines belonging to the Gupta period were discovered.

These terracotta figurines share the qualities of contemporary stone and bronze sculptures and also the paintings of this period. Although single as well as double moulded terracotta figurines were being made in the Gupta period yet the modellers of Bangladesh confined themselves to single moulded technique.

Image worship that was initiated in the preceding centuries apparently received a great momentum in the Gupta period. Examples of such advancement in the image making in terracotta are also found in the rich repertoire of the terracotta figurines of Bangladesh. Brahmanical Hindu images viz Surya, Nrsimha, Siva, Vayu etc were made in this period. Images of semi-divine beings such as Gandharva were also produced. The tradition of the images of mother goddess continued and images with Buddhist affiliation were also modelled. In the period the human figure, in fact, became the pivot of the clay modellers. The modellers casually entertained narrative panels, which either related Buddhist stories or narration was selected from the Panchatantra story.   

Couple in terrcotta medallion Mahasthan

The terracotta figurines of Pala-Chandra period are mostly in the form of terracotta bricks that were embellished on the walls of the temples of Paharpur and Mainamati. The subject matter also included stories from the Panchatantra. Aesthetically, the Pala terracotta figurines evolved a new diction of aesthetic experience. There are three types of figurines in this period. There is a group of figurines that were made with faint traces of classical obligations.

A second group of terracotta figurines depicts partial classical traits and partial regional mannerism. There is a third group of terracotta in the Pala period, which are found to be completely free from the Gupta classical idioms and express a purely local diction surcharged with emotional sentiments. Iconographically speaking the period produced the image of Buddha and Bodhisattava, Tara, Manjusri and Parna Sabari along with the Hindu gods and goddesses such as Siva, Narada, Visnu, Brahma, Ganesa etc.

The terracotta figurines exposed from the mound of Mangalkot provide interesting information showing a great impact of the Gangetic civilisation on this region during the Gupta and post Gupta period. The mound, which was excavated by the Department of Archaeology from 1981-1983, is situated about half a mile to the west from the citadel ruins of Mahasthangarh. Under the foundation wall of a small temple a huge hoard of more than one thousand terracotta figurines have been revealed. Most of them are mutilated female heads with elaborate head-dress, prominent breasts and diaphanous garments. The most interesting feature of these figurines from Mangolkot site is that almost all are crowned with serpent hood motif, irrespective of their sex. Most of the heads have single expanded snake hood, rising from the crest like a parasol except a few which are surmounted with more than one. Depiction of serpent hood over the head is significant, for it indicates that probably the figurines represented demigod or goddesses. Sizes of the serpent hoods vary according to the size of the heads. The vast array of terracotta figurines have been divided into three broad categories:

a. Heads and busts This group which includes the largest number of figurines on the basis of themes are divided into two distinct types. The first type consists of portraits of males and females belonging to the upper class of the society.

b. Grotesque This group of terracotta figurines highlights more generalised types, but the faces are beautifully proportioned and sensitively rendered. Another category of terracotta figurines belonging to this type represents a number of female forms. They are characterised by the regularity of features. The softness in the modelling of the contours and subdued sensuousness of the physiognomic form contributes a distinct character to these terracotta figurines. This category clearly indicates a transitional stage towards the Gupta idiom.

c. Large-sized human figurines used as cult figures This group consists of large sized figures representing cult images. The figurines that demonstrate Gupta idiom are assumed to have the expansive volume and earthiness as favoured by the Mathura artists of the Kusana period. Some faces are found to include wide staring eyes, bow shaped brows, belonging to the Gupta and post Gupta period and showing the influence of Kusana-based Gupta form of Mathura. [Saifuddin Chowdhury]