Ethnic Art of Assam – Terracotta on The Verge of Decay

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Necessity is the mother of invention and rationality helps to rattle the path of living a good life. The primitive people were none but rational beings and their rational instinct inspired them to discover, invent and create something new.

‘Folk Art and Craft’ are but the babies born in the womb of rational primitive cave men or nomadic people. As time went on these people who were abandoned with the faculty of imagination and creativeness stared to make this and that out of clay, mud and stone that later on gave birth terracotta, a rural art and culture in each and every corner of the globe. The pillars upon which the art and culture of an area or region hinges, folk-art, folk-art, and craft are the most important ones.

“Terracotta,” (that is, one kind of clay-modeling) is an English word. But in fact, it has been derived from Latin and Italian words. In local dialect of India (specially, in the states like Assam, Manipur, West-Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Harayana, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Tamilnadu, Gujarat and Rajasthan, it is called Pora Matir Shilpa.

‘Terra’, which is Latin word-means ‘Earth-Soil’ (specially indicates the ‘mud’) and ‘Cotta’, which is Italian word-means ‘Statue’ (it may be noted here that ‘Cocta’, which is also a Latin word-means also statue).

This wonderful handicraft is originally a ‘woman’ creation. When the male-heads of every family remain engaged with hunting, cultivation and small trade or business, the womenfolk used to spend spare time in making different utensils, toys et cetera with mud and clay. Consequently the women who were wise and thoughtful started to translate their imagination into different images of clay, pillar, even clay fort.

These images or clay modeling were vehemently in vogue during 05th century to 12th century, even, during the reign of Bhaskar Barman, Harshabardhan and Pala rulers of greater Eastern Indian province, Bengal and Assam which is in vogue. During 19th century, in Europe, the massive buildings and structures were decorated with terracotta materials.

Thus, the clay modeling industry that had occupied a prominent position in field of art and culture in ancient and medieval age, by degrees handed over to generation after generation, old and new by these people having knack in iconology. To meet the daily necessities, these potters make various materials for household-works, religious-purposes, children’s toys et cetera. Especially, these terracotta articles made of clay has wide range of usefulness and bear great importance in the villages that is, rural life. In every household, both men and women use these earthen articles.

At the initial stage, the artisans didn’t know how to make these articles. To make clay models, images and earthen articles, the potters are needed to follow the following procedures. At first they collect the soil (that is, a special type of glutinous clay for loaming soil) from the riverbank side and then mixed up with water the clay-modelers shape the different types of figure without the help of any mould with their uncovered soft hands. After that these goods or models are dried in the sun and burnt in fire and finally different colours are used to decorate them.

In previous time, the clay modelers did not use colour on their earthen goods. In fact, they were totally ignorant of this. Later on, they used only red and black colour to decorate these earthen materials. But the modern artisans have started to use new technique and new colour to make this art attractive.

In fact, the articles are made of clay had random use before the beginning of the famous Industrial Revolution. Terracotta played very important role both in Hindu and medieval age. The early history of India had also immense examples of using terracotta articles.

It may also be noted that 20,000 books which are written in Hiregliffe Method are found in the library’s terracotta ‘tabloid’ when excavated at the capital of Assyria (that is, an ancient kingdom in Mesopotamia), Nineveh.

During the rule of the Hindu rulers, like Chandra Gupta Maurya to Chandra Gupta-II, et cetera the use of terracotta articles were vehemently in vogue. The people of that time made utensils, playing materials, images, religious-establishments, statues et cetera of terracotta. There are still many houses and buildings, temples, forts, pillars, monuments where there are immense specimens of using things made of clay. Even, it bore equal importance during British period.

The appearance of various metals and mental made goods brought decline in terracotta articles. The incident also happened in India. But after independence (that is, 15th August, 1947), its importance began to increase when the ‘West’ inclined to its use.

In India, the state of West-Bengal became a great patron of terracotta articles. The potters of West-Bengal took the leading part in this culture. The articles of Bankura in Bankura district under West-Bengal State, the relief images of Rajasthan State and the Dhubri, Goalpara districts of Assam State have occupied a pivotal position in terracotta market of the world.

In fact, the persons, who offered their uncommon service to its growth and development were Kamala Devi Chattopadhayay, Jashlin Dhamija, Kumar Swami, Chaturbhujlal of Rajasthan, Jagadish Darbhanga of Bihar, Nilmanidevi of Manipur, Saralabaladevi Pal and her son, Dhirendranath Pal of Assam, Pashupatinath of West-Bengal, Ayesha Begum, Hansubai and Thavali of Gujarat, Shamdev and Puroshottamramji of UP, Palaniappan of Tamilnadu, et cetera.

“This traditional folk-art is an ancient industry based on clay or soil dates its origin since the dawn of Human civilization, like Indus Valley Civilization, Greek Civilization, Egyptian Civilization, Chinese Civilization and so on. It still bears the testimonials of terracotta art and architecture of forefathers who shed every drop of blood to lay the foundation of this modern world for which people or human beings are proud of.”

But the importance of terracotta began to decline with the advent of Arabian civilization when ‘Glazed-Pottery’ came in full swing or to motion and then industrial revolution. In the 14th century in Europe (especially in the countries like Germany and Italy) it became focusing point in the field of terracotta relief, portrait, and Mural have immense use both in common and uncommon households.

Not only that, this art and culture also took new shape when the Florentine-sculpture and Florentine-artisans used their new skills or techniques in the terracotta’s statues. Thus, with the advancement of civilization terracotta appeared with new life and luster.

Even, terracotta an art of earthen ware or clay modeling came into existence from the rational art look and faculty of imagination of our forefathers, who had exhibited their excellence of intellect in building city or town found at Horappa in Sindh province, now in Pakistan country.

In fact, the Assamese terracotta art and culture took its birth at Asharikandi, a small village near Gauripur town in the Eastern Indian State, Assam’s Dhubri district.

The people of this village plunge into great distress during rainy season when flood occurs in Gadadhar, a tributary of the river Brahmaputra blows beside this village.

About 60/70 to 75/80 of family of terracotta artisans live in this village who originated from the then East-Pakistan, that is, East-Bengal, popularly known as, Purba-Bangla or Purbo Bango, presently, Bangladesh and they live upon pottery. Most of these people belong to ‘Pal’ community. Here, pal means Kumar (that is, potter). Of them, 10 to 15 per cent family get themselves attached with terracotta art and culture. Although, 80 to 85 per cent live upon making earthen goods or articles (specially, welfare work and daily household work materials).

As per Hindu Shashtra, the earthen utensils once used in any ceremony or festivals are not allow to be used again and so, glaze is not use in the materials for religious bigotry. This is why; these terracotta articles bear crudity. In fact, this crudity helped to increase its attraction and demand too.

In fact, this art and culture grew especially at the help and inspiration rendered by the famous ‘Baruah’ family of Gauripur Raj Paribar. As this place is situated on the Assam – West-Bengal interstate border, so the influence of Bengali terracotta art and architecture is marked here.

But the story of terracotta art and culture of this region will remain incomplete unless and the people speak anything about Saralabala Pal and her son, who are at the root of ups and downs of this Assamese ethnic art, terracotta in this connection.

65-years-old, this elderly woman, simple and unassuming, always dressed in a white Sari (that is, cloth) after the death of her husband and with a white Tilak (that is, a mark) on her forehead awarded Presidential Award in 1982 by the Government of India for her skill in this folk-art.

This pious, industrious, experienced (seven decades), swept moving who loves Paan and chews it constantly was an efficient worker. Today she is no more, but her worthy son, Dhirendra Nath Pal who born in 1946, a mute Assamese artist had won both national and international fame. While describing his professional skill, said that he had engaged himself with this art since his childhood. He had both inner urge and earnest towards this activity and this led him to earn success in this profession. He had fully devoted himself in this work in the year of 1975. But their economic condition is very deplorable.

Yet, nothing could prevent him from doing this.

He said, “I do it to keep this traditional art alive. I think this is life and the flow of my soul.” He further revealed, “Our economic condition is very pathetic. In fact, we have plunged into the ocean of unlimited want. We live a life of hand to mouth life. We have to undergo through toil some work with a view to providing two-meals-a-day.”

However, nothing could prevent her from doing this work and in 1975; he got himself involved at the advice of All India Handicraft Commission, Government of India.

As a result, after 7 years, that is, in 1982, he got an invitation to join the handicraft exhibition held in New Delhi, the capital of India. Thereafter, honour after honour began to help upon the pal family. Their name and fame began to spread and they got both national and international awards.

In 1984, he was invited to the city of United States of America (USA) to exhibit terracotta or clay modeling achievements. But as ill luck would have it he could not avail of the opportunity.

After this, he traveled in different European countries like Denmark, Sweden, Germany et cetera and won a lot of name and fame in pottery industry.

Not only that, in 1988, he joined the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) games held in Chennei (that is, Madras), the capital of Indian State, Tamilnadu and earned Lolit Kala Academy Award honour.

This internationally famous terracotta artist has a number of disciples all over the world. It has been said that 100 to 150 students are now receiving training in different universities of the world. The artists having knack in art and architecture are now to inclining to terracotta art and culture.

In this connection Mr. Pal also disclosed that despite immense potentialities of ‘Terracotta and Pottery Industry’, it is yet to take off owing to various problems like disintegration among the artisans, financial hardship, poor infrastructure dearth of design development, absence of market strategy, scarcity of raw materials, dilapidated condition of Road and Transport System, poor packing system, poor knowledge of accounting, ignorance on Drinking Water System, Electrification System, Post and Telecommunication System and Sanitary System, inadequate exposure of art and artisans and indifferent attitude of the Government towards the development of this terracotta and pottery arts. And until and unless the Government did not take some comprehensive plan to uplift this trade as well as artisans, nothing tangible could be achieved.

He proudly told, my mother, who expired in 1996, always advised to all potters in the world, “….. Sikhha Mantroi Mala, Dikhha Mantrodebe Guru, Tumi Sudhu Kaaj Kore Jaao, Faler Asha Koro Na, Jano To Karmai Dharma, Jibane To Bahu Badha-bighna Asbei, Kaaj Ki Theme Thake …..”

“Dhiren Paul tried to revive the position of the art and artisans of terracotta, when 80% (percent) pal family are leaving this job for want of better prices. If the Government and Non Governmental Organization (NGO)s fail to take proper care for its revival, this ‘industry’ will die a premature death,” regretted the local think tanks.

“….. Despite immense potentialities of terracotta and pottery industry, it is yet to take off owing to various problems like disintegration among the artisans, financial hardship, poor infrastructure dearth of design development, absence of market strategy, scarcity of raw materials, dilapidated condition of road and transport system, poor packing system, poor knowledge of accounting, ignorance on health and sanitation, inadequate exposure of art and artisans and different attitude of the Government towards the development of this terracotta and pottery arts and culture. And until and unless, the state and central Governments did not take some comprehensive plan to uplift this trade as well as artisans, nothing tangible could be achieved … ,” lamented an active member of Asharikandi Terracotta and Pottery Development Committee (ATAPD).

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.