Sikandar M Kumar
Researcher, Craft Revival Trust

The small sun-soaked village of Molela, located approximately fifteen to twenty kilometers from the city of Udaipur in Rajasthan, is home to a vibrant community of terracotta clay artists. Over the years, Molela has emerged as a focal point in the art of making attractive votive plaques or idols of gods, with terracotta. While the early creations were originally cast as standing idols of local deities and various forms of the Hindu god Vishnu, today these figures are often mounted on tiles or plaques and are hung from the walls of homes and temples. These votive figurines can be multicolored or can have a terracotta hue, as is represented in the various temples in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Like most crafts, the traditional art form has been passed from generation to generation through the sons of the family, evolving with each generation. While the potters of Molela are known for producing religious idols, these terracotta creations are produced largely for the sake of enabling the creators’ livelihood. In the months of December and January, for example, the production of plaques and the ready-to-be-sold stock increases manifold because these are the months that the local tribal communities (adivasis) visit Molela to purchase plaques for their fairs. It is in these months that the production of religious figurines becomes essential as the potters have to cater to the demand of the local tribal communities—here, the popular figurines include the gods and goddesses worshiped by the local communities. However, as the market demand for the terracotta pottery expands towards urban centers, the potters have begun to depict on plaques scenes that express what the artisans can see in their everyday rural surroundings. These scenes include everything from mythological stories from Indian epics and historical narrations of the Rajput rulers of Rajasthan to depictions of daily household chores related to agricultural activities and butter churning; natural objects, such as the sun, and social issues, such as women’s empowerment, have also become popular themes.

In the form of plaques and statues, these icons are made from the red clay that is characteristic of the soil of the village. The addition of donkey dung and rice husks enhances the material’s pliability and tempers the clay. Squatting on a mud floor, the potter begins the task of making the votive plaques. Donkey dung is sprinkled on the floor and then prepared clay is put on it. The soft clay is flattened into a slab with a stone and is evened out by smoothing it with water and a flat piece of wood. After removing impurities from the clay, the slab is cut, with the help of an iron tool, into the shape that forms the surface to support the relief figure. The base is called thala. Holes are made on the slab with the help of iron tools called bhaladi to remove pores; if air is trapped within, then the product might burst when baked in the fire. Meanwhile, the figurines are formed from another piece of flattened clay and finally these crude shapes are joined onto the surface of the plaque. The figurines are built and refined through a combination of hand and finger gestures that involve squeezing, punching, and cooling actions. From time to time, drying periods are allowed to avoid any collapse of the figurine. Later, details are added and the figurines are embellished with thin coils of clay. The surface is prepared by applying a mixture of white stone powder and glue with a cloth. Seven colors have been traditionally used for generations—blue, yellow, green, orange, red, peach, and black. Originally these were made from natural pigments, but now they are mostly bought commercially. The color is then applied, and the linear details are added with black carbon taken from the inside of cooking pots.

The terracotta clay work of Molela is slowly coming under a threat from the forces of modernization. More importantly, two new brick factories have opened near the village, and the potters fear that in another ten years, these factories will eat up a majority of the red clay that is necessary for the potters’ artwork. Issues such as these need to be tackled through governmental intervention, and increased efforts need to be taken to widen the market demand for the terracotta plaques of Molela to ensure the future life of this age-old craft of pottery.