Pottery art in India is as ancient as the country itself. According to archaeological evidence, it was prevalent during the Indus Valley civilisation. The exact time period when it came to Bengal is unknown, but what helped it grow and develop here was the fertile alluvial soil of the Ganges and its many tributaries and distributaries. Today, West Bengal is one of the largest producers of terracotta pottery in the country. The art form is spread all over this state, but Panchmura pottery has its own unique appeal, beauty and popularity.

Panchmura is a small village in the Bankura district of West Bengal, approximately 200 km from Kolkata. Most of us will find it easier to familiarise ourselves with this place and the art form that has existed and grown here if I simply mention the Bankura Horse. This is where the typical horse, proudly displayed in many homes, is crafted. But Bankura Horse is only one of the artifacts that churn out of the hands of the kumbhakaras or artisans of this village.

In our country, handicraft items are sold at prices above reasonable in showrooms. It is a fact though that these art forms are in a miserable condition in most parts of India. A considerable lot has been said about this, but significant little done for their survival and glorification.

It was under such dire circumstances that the kumbhakaras (potters) of Panchmura, together with enterprising individuals, realised that they have to be the masters of their destiny if they wanted to prevent the extinction of the centuries old Bengal terracotta art. And thus the struggle for existence began.

Pottery items were generally used for household and ritualistic purposes. With time, the artists slowly got into the business of selling it. “We had to get into this trade to support our families,” says Laltu, one of the kumbhakaras. But has the process also undergone a change along with this? Laltu has the answer.

“The most important raw material for pottery is clay.” Terracotta is the hard, partially burnt clay without any moisture, used for pottery. Panchmura artisans have always taken care that even when operating under losses, no compromise should be made on the mati or clay. They use the finest quality of clay available on the banks of the Ganges near Kolkata, commonly known as gangamati. It is quite interesting that the artists even take care of the age of the mati. “The older the alluvial clay, the better the quality.”

Once the mati (clay) is received, the actual work begins. It is a long process, taking up days, and at times even months, to complete. Even today, the age-old potter’s wheel or chak is used. Initially, few selective articles were made. These consisted of various types of pots and other usable products. With innovation and experimentation, the artists began the production of other shapes which were decorative in nature. This was the stage of moving away from satisfying basic requirement to being an art for the market. It no more remained restricted to the village. Complicated designs were introduced, and the infamous Bankura Horse created. The characteristic feature of this is that the entire product, say the horse, is not made together, unlike the pots that were simpler to make. It consists of various pieces which are constructed individually, on the wheel, and then joined together to give the final shape. They are then scraped and made even to give the smooth finish. Smaller and intricate parts are handmade and joined to the main body. This therefore marked the beginning of an art form that required great skill and expertise.

The tedious procedure does not get over here. After the basic products are made, they must be dried. But not under direct sun, as it may lead to minute fractures and result in easily breakable forms. They are left in an open space for days for the moisture to completely evaporate. When this is done, the final baking takes place.

The furnace or bhati used for baking has to be carefully constructed. Authentically, the bhati is made by digging the ground in a circular shape (nowadays electric furnaces are becoming popular though that saves labour as well as cost and can be used repeatedly unlike the handmade furnace that can be used only once). Then it is lined with bricks and filled with coal (by well to do artisans), cow dung cake or wood and bhusa (by poorer artisans). The art pieces are then carefully placed in the furnace, against one another. It is then lit and the opening of the bhati sealed. Depending on the products and the artists’ choice of color and strength, the heating takes place. Usually under normal circumstances, this is an overnight procedure, taking about 8-10 hours. Then the furnace is opened, the baked products taken out carefully and left to cool for 4-5 hours. The art forms have by now got their color that we see in the market, the true orange color of terracotta. And it is ready for sale.

The Bankura Horse has been a favourite amongst patrons of Bengal terracotta art. When I visited Panchmura, and the retail outlets, I was pleasantly surprised at the range of designs available today. We have heavenly beings on one hand, all animals possible, and self designed objects on the other. We also have very delicately made pieces of jewellery. Anyone will be delighted by the attention paid to intricacy and perfection by the kumbhakaras; each and every piece crafted to its best.

“For a very long time, Bengal terracotta art was restricted within the state and in select places only,” Bipin, who has a shop selling Panchmura pottery, says. “One could purchase only at the time of annual fairs”. Unarguably, the art form was losing its prominence and popularity due to lack of availability and an organised market. The re-emergence of this art took place when groups of people formed cooperatives and came to the forefront. These self-financed small groups studied the market, the demand for terracotta, and deducted that a profitable business could thrive. This would not only provide a regular source of income to the skilful kumbhakaras but also to the sellers. Retail outlets were thus set up at various places. Today many cities in West Bengal, as well as other parts of the country, have outlets which sell Bengal terracotta artifacts. The heartening fact is that these are also being exported now, and the market is only becoming larger and more diverse, as art lovers all over are recognising and appreciating the delicately and beautifully made forms.

During the initial phase though, profit was minimal, and hardly anything would be left of the sales. Today, in most places, these outlets are making considerable profits, and the artists are getting a reasonable and expected share. “Profit depends on a variety of factors. But on an average we usually make around 30-40% gain,” says Bipin.

This happened when these groups realised that the demand of the market has changed. Customers no more want the traditional artifacts nor the authentic terracotta color products. These have a restricted desire today. People want trendy and fashionable products. They also want to order specific products according to their liking. Deities and animals have taken a back seat. Modern designs are in vogue. Whereas age old forms have suffered a setback, this norm of ordering and designing for the market, has also increased sales and popularity of the art.

Much to the dismay of the traditional artists, terracotta is being colored today. Metallic color has become quite common, apart from stone and red brick colors. Terracotta is always colored under direct sunlight to acquire the glaze and shine that results from color mixed in proportion to spirit. For some kumbhakaras, who have lived with the art, “coloring is a loss of self respect”, or as they say it, the morjada, of the art form. As mere, most of the times, helpless artisans, they have no choice but to meet the demand of their customers.

Survival of the fittest, the law of the world, is witnessed in this instance. The constant effort to keep afloat goes on. If we agree that compromise is the rule of any game, then for these artists it is a mode of life. As patrons and lovers of this art form, we can at the least make an effort to help keep this art alive. The next time I go to one of these outlets, I will definitely get them as gifts for my friends and family members. And I am sure they will only be too happy to flaunt authentic Bengal terracotta in their homes and be noticed and appreciated by everyone.

 

How to reach Panchmura:

Panchmura is merely 200 kilometres from the capital city, Kolkata. It is well connected by road, and I would suggest hopping onto ones own vehicle or rent a car as the drive is pretty scenic and rustic. You can experience quite a bot of rural life in Bengal and lush fields on the way.

What to eat:

When in Bengal, there is really no dearth of good food. You can stop at small dhabas too to enjoy a good meal and sweets.

When to go:

Winter or autumn months are the best as summers are hot and humid.

 

PS: This article contains views of independent artisans and sellers and the author who made a personal visit to the place and none should be considered as absolute or a group opinion.

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