It was a potent time for creative explorations. Inspired by Sri Chaitanya’s bhakti  movement, people were in search of newer ways to forge ties – between themselves, between the self and the universe and beyond. 16th century Bengal  was experiencing a resurgence which not only prompted poets and artists to find various forms of expressions, but also resulted in a rapid development of its own language. Architects and sculptors of the era grabbed this opportunity to create some of the finest works of terracotta art.
The Gangetic plain offered no marble or wood to carve, bronze was costly and beyond reach of most of the artists and architects living in remote villages. But the banks of the rivers were covered with thick layers of alluvial soil, fit to create art as they wanted. Clay as a medium offers no novelty in itself. From creating an architectural marvel like Ishtar Gate to the purposes of modelling like Antonio Canova, clay is used extensively by architects and sculptors of all era. Use of clay in the art of Bengal was not a new phenomenon either. But the way it was used to create pure visual poetry was unthought of before and after this period.
The essence of Indian art is somewhat different from the Western art philosophy. Even while dwelling in realism, Indian art remains imbued with a sense of spirituality. Indeed, this is quintessential to all oriental art form. As author and art historian E B Havell noted in his book Indian Sculpture and Painting, ‘Nature, to the European, is always an obvious reality which must be studied, exploited, and analysed so that the exact composition of every organic and inorganic element in it may be ascertained and explained … Realism to the Indian artist has a different meaning from what we attach to it; for Indian philosophy regards all nature as transitory, illusive phenomena, and declares that the only reality is the divine essence, or spirit.’
For example, even while depicting sensuality, as seen in the temples of Khajuraho, the goal for an artist does not deviate from uniting the purush (soul) and prakriti (everything residing outside it). As Brihadaranyaka Upanishad suggests, ‘…whoever worships a divinity other than the self, thinking “He is one, and I another”, knows not.’
Such subtle feelings are not completely absent in Western art, particularly medieval art of West, but these may not constitute its core philosophy. It must also be remembered that, more often than not, such exalted emotions are results of the collective sensitivities of the society, typical to India, and not always a consequence of individual broodings. Curiously enough, Indian art does not distinguish an artist from an artisan. So many works of art, such as the ones I am about to describe, blur the boundaries between intricately designed handcrafted items and fine arts.
Historical monuments bearing terracotta art are seen scattered about across the flood plain of the Ganges. However, the finest examples of this could be found between Purulia (West Bengal, India) and Tangail (Bangladesh). Places like Cheliama, Baghmundi, Telkupi, Bishnupur, Kenduli, Labhpur, Ambika Kalna, Gaur, Supur, Bansberia in India and Kantanagar, Mirzapore, Shariatpur, Bauphal in Bangladesh gave birth to some of the most exquisite expressions of this art form.
Nature and Inspiration
In spirit and in imagery terracotta art resembles the lyric poetry (geeti kavya). It is steeped into a sense of ardour that is at once serene, but not alienating. Through such intricate artworks, the artists of the time strived to showcase a love so pure that is not bound by time and place. This devotional love is fundamental to bhakti movement and Vaishnavism  then sweeping over Bengal. In many ways it is evocative of Meister Eckhart’s words, ‘All true morality, inward and outward, is comprehended in love, for love is the foundation of all the commandments.’
Those who already have some acquaintances with Indian temple art know, that such renderings, however tinged with myths and allegories, never fail in portraying life itself. Interestingly, besides the sacred sites of the region, many civilian buildings at the time were decorated with similar motifs.
If at this point these sound overly mystical then let me assure you, that the artists could not have chosen simpler images than those embellishing these ancient edifices to represent life as it were back then. A woman longingly looking forward from behind a half closed window, perhaps anxiously waiting for her beloved; a village girl milking a cow; farmers throwing stones towards a rampaging elephant damaging their crops are only some of the examples of such commonplace incidents that were immortalised through terracotta bas reliefs.
Even visual narratives based on such epics as Ramayana or Vishnu Puran were familiar to everyone then. Educators, even in the villages, largely depended on these texts for moral upliftment and mass education. Fascinating also are the decorations of the mosques like Adina Masjid of Pandua and Atiya Jami Masjid of Tangail. While in other places mythological depictions were real life images took precedence, these sacred buildings thrived in arabesques. Islamic art philosophy’s abhorrence to iconography of any sort gave birth to a very different kind of terracotta motifs. It once again asserts the great unifying capability of art.
If in so far I have discussed more about terracotta sculptures, it is not to undervalue its architectural merits. But because the finer details of bas reliefs are far more comprehensible than the structural nuances of a dilapidated building. Indeed, we will have to depend heavily on the past researches to perceive the grandeur of terracotta architecture now.
Terracotta architecture in essence is no different from the relief sculptures. It follows the basic tenets of Shilpa Sastra (an ancient doctrine of art and architecture conceived more than 3000 years ago) and skilfully merges the local influences into it. So we see a reflection of typical Bengali hut like structures in many of these. Ironically, even in ruins, some of these several storey high buildings manage to tower above many modern structures even today.
Ornate façades, roofs, cornices, vaulting and pillars made of baked clay blocks created the core of these structures. Bricks in different shapes and sizes were employed to complete a solid and sustainable yet aesthetically pleasing construction. Hollow bricks, as opposed to solid ones, gained in popularity and the architects showed their ingenuity in the laying of the bricks as well. It could be defined as neo-classicism in Indian context where classical elements of art and architecture were expressed through a newer mode. It must be noted that in Indian art predating modern time, often the architect doubled up as the lead artist creating a harmony in the overall structure and composition which otherwise could have proven to be elusive.
Once past its heydays, the splendour of terracotta art became shrouded in obscurity and remained so till mid-20th century. Indian philosophy puts greater emphasis on the art itself than the artist behind. Almost in all artistic endeavours till modern time, the name of the creator is non-existent and untraceable. Though anonymous, they continue to live through their art. Their work stirred the imagination of celebrated artist and art historian Mukul Dey (July 23, 1895 – March 1, 1989) who made elaborate attempts of documenting its past glories.
This was a mission initiated by poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who came across several instances of this sublime art form during his stays in Santiniketan. ‘It is an object very dear to my heart and I cannot but help welcoming any endeavours towards its realisation,’ said he in 1936. In five years between 1946 and ’51, Mukul Dey visited some 3000 temples of Birbhum district and other villages nearby. He photographed, sketched, took ink imprints and journaled about the intricacies of terracotta art as well as the details of his journeys. His work is now preserved in a museum set up at his home in Santiniketan, India. Japanese artists Tesuro and Ichiro Sugimoto also made attempts to create ink impressions of the terracotta reliefs before showing them in various art exhibitions in the United States.
David McCutchion (August 12, 1930 – January 12, 1972), on deputation as a teacher to Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, fell in love with this art form as well. As a result, he left behind a huge repository of essays, letters, photographs and other documents that prove to be a treasure chest for the connoisseurs of Indian art. Sadly, his life was cut short by an attack of polio. Another such research was undertaken by Jean Deloche. The result of his researches could be found in Boats and Ships in Bengal Terracotta Art, published in 1991. It is somewhat an unusual, if not quirky, angle of investigating the richness of terracotta art form.
Terracotta art never really seized to exist in Bengal. Even now, sculptors and artisans continue to explore this medium in their own ways. But after an initial spur that lasted for about two centuries and a half, it never quite managed to reach the sublime standards that any successful art movement demands. Gone are the days when rich patrons used to generously finance, give away portions of their own land and support the artists and architects in such endeavours. Such painstaking efforts require years of toil which modern mindset, predisposed to look for quick gains and recognitions, fail to acknowledge.
I was standing in a dingy marketplace of a seedy town in Bengal when the idea of writing about this beautiful art form first struck me. Behind me was the grand structure of Radha Madhav Temple, aptly positioned on the banks of once mighty Ajay River, now reduced to a narrow strip of polluted water. The river bed was covered with tonnes of garbage and being steadily encroached upon. Ugly concrete structures all around the temple were threatening to engulf it.
It was not difficult to see with what great care this ancient edifice was crafted. Standing there, one could almost perceive the shadow of poet Joydev, seated on the temple terrace, contemplating the ebbs and tides of the river between refining his immortal verse, Geet Govindam . The remnants of the terracotta plaques, covering the temple’s outer walls, still evoke a sense of awe. Yet, three fourths of these are already gone. No, it was not eroded by the forces of nature, but cleverly plucked away by people perhaps to be sold off to lucrative art markets or decorate their own bungalows.
It is pointless to get into a discussion whether attempts should have been made to better preserve this majestic art form, much of it is already in ruins beyond repair. Perhaps that defines man’s strange relationship to his art, where he is the creator and the devourer at the selfsame time.
‘Bhakti Yoga is a real, genuine search after the Lord, a search beginning, continuing and ending in love.’ – Swami Vivekananda
In a quest for spiritual re-awaking, bhakti movement united everyone irrespective of one’s social or financial status. Sri Chaitanya (1486 – 1534), scholar and ascetic, was an important proponent of bhakti movement.
- Bengal signifies the unified territory of West Bengal, India and Bangladesh as was the case prior to the partition in 1947.
- Vaishnavism uphelds the essence of Bhakti Yoga and worships the Supreme Creator as Vishnu.
- Geet Govindam is a collection of lyrics written in Sanskrit by poet Joydev in 12th century. There is some debate about Joydev’s birthplace. While some believes it to be Joydev Kenduli, others consider Kenduli in Odisha to be his home. The original poetry with English translations can be read here.