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Dolls, Toys & Votive Pottery

The pottery traditions of Bengal have a distinctive history and style, originating in the ancient history of the region. Starting from the Chalcolithic period and continuing up to the Mughal period, archaeological evidences have pointed to the existence of a rich tradition of craftsmanship in this region.

For centuries, traditional rural potters in Bengal, the Kumbhakars, have catered to popular domestic and religious needs. Using their hands, the potter’s wheel or moulds, the potters created clay utensils of different shapes and sizes, ceremonial pottery, tiles, votive figurines, dolls and toys. Their art has primarily been an expression of the folk culture of the region.

Dolls, Toys & Votive Pottery

The pottery traditions of Bengal have a distinctive history and style, originating in the ancient history of the region. Starting from the Chalcolithic period and continuing up to the Mughal period, archaeological evidences have pointed to the existence of a rich tradition of craftsmanship in this region.

For centuries, traditional rural potters in Bengal, the Kumbhakars, have catered to popular domestic and religious needs. Using their hands, the potter’s wheel or moulds, the potters created clay utensils of different shapes and sizes, ceremonial pottery, tiles, votive figurines, dolls and toys. Their art has primarily been an expression of the folk culture of the region.

However, given the rich pantheon of deities within and outside the Hindu faith, it is its religious association that has played a far greater role for Bengal clay art than its domestic and utilitarian function, especially since the 18th century. Colonial rule and therefore European influence along with the patronage of the landed aristocracy in Bengal with a new taste for arts, the beginning of community worship etc. brought about changes in the pattern of goods produced by the potters. Thus, along with the production of traditional items, manufacture of clay models, clay images of popular deities for worship and clay sculptures by some of the clay-modellers flourished. This aspect of clay art along with the prolific production of ceremonial pottery for ritual worship continues to prevail to this day. (While it is mostly the potters, normally engaged in the making of ordinary clay items, who also make idols, not all potters are idol makers. And not all idol makers are potters. Among the castes who are engaged in idol making and clay modelling from unfired clay are the Sutradhars.)   

In the realm of pottery for domestic use, it is primarily the women who would create hand-made pottery, which included dolls and toys. They also hand-beat the bottoms of round pots, the necks and upper halves of which are turned on the wheel by the men. In fact, wheel turned pottery has always been the domain of men who make pottery of various sizes and shapes for ritualistic, household and storage purposes. (Traditionally, it has also been the men who make clay images and idols, though in recent times, some women too have made a name for themselves in this arena.) 

The use of common household earthen pottery however has considerably declined since the introduction of china, metal ware and plastic.  Most potters who make earthen vessels can barely sustain themselves. Some potters, in an effort to keep the art alive, have experimented with new ideas, methods and designs and sell them as objects of interior decoration. 

Where traditional pottery is concerned, votive dolls and pottery continue to be prolific and motivate the potters to some extent, while secular toys and dolls, once the delight of children, had practically being written off as a lost art due to competition from mass produced toys. However, in recent times, attempts have been made to revive them as decorative items by showcasing them in numerous craft emporia.  

Toys and dolls 

Rural West Bengal once boasted a huge abundance of clay toys and dolls. They were available in great variety and reflected the styles, skills and traditions of the various communities to which the artist belonged. The variations, though stylistically not of much importance, often occurred because different groups of artists, with varying skill, made them. Moreover, since the skill was and is closely related to local and familial tradition, the same type of doll even in the same area, could differ from one family to other.

These simple handmade figures were created by pinching lumps of clay into shape (pressed dolls or tepa putul) or by using moulds. They were traditionally made by the women of the Kumbhakar (potter) and Patua (scroll painting) communities, who would devote their time to doll making after completing their household chores.  The dolls were made for ritual purposes or to be used as toys for children. Though no longer prolific, some of these traditions continue to survive in some form or fashion in the present day. 

The women air-dry and sun-dry the objects, and then bake them in kitchen ovens while some types of dolls are left unbaked (terra cruda). These unbaked dolls are used specifically for particular festivals and immersed in the rivers or ponds later. The height of all these hand-made figures is generally three to five inches and rarely exceeds a foot. 

Where moulds are used, the doll may be prepared in parts and then joined together. Those dolls completely shaped in the mould have the hands and legs joined to it later. 

Generally, the terracotta dolls retain their natural colour, red or black (if the smoke is not allowed to escape the kiln).  Many dolls are also painted – especially the unbaked ones – with azo dyes having replaced herbal colours. 

Often, the dolls represent only the bare outline of a human form and are rendered in different styles and in a number of poses and attitudes. Female figures outnumber male figures. Hands are symbolic and the mother-and-child figures are the most valued of all the clay dolls and toys in West Bengal. Bits of clay are stuck on the figure to represent necklaces, armlets, girdles and anklets. In some cases, the ornaments are merely suggested by a few lines.

It has been argued that most of these clay dolls and toys were not just a product of playful imagination meant merely for the amusement of children. There is a close affinity in shape and character to figures used as votive offerings or in connection with rituals performed by women in Bengali households. Thus, some of them must have been originally been cult objects, gradually becoming children’s toys. The figurines ‘mother-and-child’, Shoshthi, Sitala etc. are some instances of such cult objects. 

Several of these hand-made forms, like the Shoshthi putul, have retained the same basic shapes found in earlier civilizations.  Their inherent primitive quality and the principle involved in their making have remained unchanged over thousands of years.  Thus  researchers have suggested that terracotta art may be classified as either “ageless” or popular art forms that still continue today as desi (folk) forms and “timed” or high art forms that have changed with the times. The simple hand-made terracotta objects that have prevailed from ancient times till today are identified as ageless, while it has been suggested that Krishnanagar clay toys, which were realist in form and influenced by Europe, represent the high end forms of contemporary Bengal art.

The craft of doll making once spanned nearly the whole of West Bengal, including the districts of Howrah, Medinipur, 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Bankura, the marshy areas of Nadia and Kalighat in Kolkata. Some of the popular clay doll making centres, creating a diverse range of dolls, were Panchmura in Bankura, Rajnagar in Birbhum, Joynagar-Majilpur in South 24 Parganas, Katalia in Murshidabad and Narajole in Medinipur. Each centre of production was marked by a particular style of form and technique, passed down the ages. The hand pressed variety made by the women coexisted with the moulded dolls. 

The variety of clay dolls included the ubiquitous hand-pressed dolls (tepa putul) which varied in size from one inch to five or six inches, mica coated red dolls, queen dolls (rani putul), rail dolls, horse riders with and without wheels, wheeled boats and palanquins, shoshthi dolls, hip-jar dolls (kalasi kankhe putul) and a wide range of dolls depicting village life.

Barring a handful, most doll making hubs and the vast array of dolls once famous in West Bengal have dwindled. Some of the centres which have managed to continue the terracotta tradition include Panchmura in Bankura, Debalaya in North 24 Parganas, and Kunoor in North Dinajpur. Types of dolls that are still seen, albeit sparsely, include Jhulan dolls of North 24 Parganas and Kalighat, Hingli dolls of Bishnupur, Jo Putul of Medinipur, Diwali dolls of Purulia and Medinipur, Katalia dolls of Murshidabad and dolls of Joynagar-Majilpur, 24 Parganas.  In comparison, the Lac Dolls or Galar Putul of East Medinipur have garnered a reasonable exposure for themselves.

Most of these dolls are made only at a particular time of the year, especially for ritual purposes, in preparation for specific festivals and are seen at rural melas. For instance, the unbaked Hingli dolls are made in preparation for the local Jitashtami festival; Uttar Kumor Para, a pottery neighbourhood of Medinipur town, continues a 200 year old tradition of Diwali Dolls.  

Secular dolls however, struggle to survive. The potter community of Katalia in Murshidabad once used to create a wide variety of dolls for children to play with. These were special kinds of dolls where numerous representations of village life were depicted. A woman pounding wheat (gom-peshani), a lady tying up her companion’s hair (chul bandha), a milkmaid (goalini), an oil massage given to a baby (bachcha ke tel makhano), a grain husker (dhaan bhangano), horse riders (ghora sowar) and elephant riders (haathi sowar) were some of the popular themes of these dolls. 

The dolls were traditionally handmade by the women and then baked in a kiln.  Next they were coated with a layer of mica and khori mati (chalk dust) and finally decorated with distinctive red and black stripes. The artisans would also make votive dolls for ritual needs of the villagers. Today, Sadhan Pal and members of his family are the only crafts persons making these dolls.

Meanwhile, Shambhunath Das, the sole representative of the Joynagar-Majilpur genre of doll making, strives to uphold a 300 year old tradition. The dolls range in size from 4 inches to a foot and the gamut of characters depicted includes Krishna, Radha, Balaram, Durga (Ganesh-janani) alongside an English woman, a tradesman, an amused old man or seated old woman called Ahladiputul, a milkmaid and a drunkard. These colourful moulded dolls were originally pressed dolls.

Women patuas would make small hand pressed dolls, both for the pleasure of their children and to sell at various melas around the state, like the Rath Mela. The process for baking just  a handful of dolls would vary from that of making a large batch. The dolls would be placed under the heap of ashes at the bottom of their kitchen ovens at night and be slowly baked when the ovens were lit for the morning and evening meals. Directly putting them in the fire would make the clay crack. When baking a large batch of dolls, the dolls would need to be sun dried all day and then arranged inside the oven while the dolls were still warm.

However, ever since the women in patua families started painting patachitras themselves sometime in the eighties, jo putul making has reduced. There are just  a few of the older women who still continue this tradition - making small figurines of Shoshthi, birds and animals and tiny images of Lakshmi, Jagannath and Ganesh, particularly for the Rath mela and also for the fairs in Kolkata. Sometimes, they paint the dolls using bright chemical colours, especially the ones sold as toys.  Some of their small (unpainted) horses are also purchased as votive dolls to be used at Pir Thaans, like the Barakhan Pir thaan, nearby. If for some reason, a votive horse has not been baked, it is coated with a solution of an ochre coloured clay (ela mati) mixed with glue. This gives it a yellowish hue. 

Votive Pottery

For centuries together, terracotta sculptures in Bengal have been used for the propitiation of a wide variety of local folk deities like Manosha, Dharma Thakur, Boram as well as Kali and Chandi, particularly in the district of Bankura and other parts of Rarh Bengal.  These votive objects include doll like images of divinities, animals like horses, elephants and tigers and anthropomorphic representations of local deities, which can be seen strewn around or piled up in heaps at village shrines or sacred groves, especially in Bankura. Sculpted primarily by potters dotted across the western districts of West Bengal for the local populace, the most famous are those made by the craftsmen of Bankura and of Panchmura in particular. 

The stylized votive terracotta animals and serpent-hoods jars constitute the chief art-objects of the potters of Bankura, many of whom devote themselves solely to sculpting and do not make vessels. These continue to be made by them almost exclusively to be used as offerings by devotees to local Gramadevatas or tutelary deities, as a token of gratitude when their prayers are answered. If a boon is received, the worshiper will commission this sculpture to be made by a local potter. The size of the offering will depend on the ability of the devotee to pay for it and sometimes, on the nature of the wish. The size of these votive animals can vary from a few inches to several feet. On a day considered auspicious to the deity, the figurine, along with gifts of flowers and food, will be placed at the ‘thaan’ (shrine) – a small temple, a simple hut or a sacred grove, usually located at the boundary of a village. Customers are both Hindus and Muslims, who either heap them on the shrine of village deities or offer them as tokens of thanksgiving on the dargahs of Muslims pirs (saints). 

In the bygone days, zamindars and feudal lords were known to sometimes order life size horses and elephants and gift them to the villagers on special occasions. With such patronage gone, the clay sculptors no longer possess these skills.

The origin of these religious cults is not known and it is possible that they must have been part of a pre-Hindu system of totemic beliefs that have survived over time among some castes of Bankura. There are various opinions about why the terracotta elephant and horse became the primary objects of votive offerings. Some scholars have suggested that the forest of the Rarhbhum region, having been the home of elephants, tigers, and serpents, the people of this region might have been more acquainted with these animals than others. It has also been suggested that these forest tracks were the route taken by invaders and traders between the two ancient centres of Magadh and Utkal. These groups carried with them large numbers of animals, mainly horses and elephants, often gloriously decorated and no doubt producing a sense of awe in the eyes of the beholder, the local forest dwellers, the Bauris. Others have suggested that the horse motif was introduced in the 13th century during the Muslim period since clay horses are the most important offering found in Muslim shrines across West Bengal.  

The offering of a clay animal symbolizes the act of sacrificing a live animal.  The people accept that this substitution is a manner of “cheating” the deity and therefore these votive dolls are commonly known as Chhalan Murti (the Bengali word Chhalan means ‘to cheat’).  

The worshippers believe that the clay animals become real animals in the spirit world the instant they are placed at the shrine, and once they have been offered and transformed by the deity, they no longer have any value. They remain beneath the tree to disintegrate with the weather, their sole purpose fulfilled.

Other specimens of votive animal figurines in Bankura include the unique Bonga elephant of Sendra. This particular style came to the limelight after Kalipada Sanyasi of Sendra village, received a national award for it in 1988. Articles on terracotta have mistakenly associated the Bonga elephant with Santal craftsmanship and rituals and the worship of the sun god Sing Bonga. However, Sing Bonga is worshipped only by tribes such as the Mundas and Ho. Moreover, the use of votive dolls is not a tradition with these animistic tribes, the Santals included. Therefore the practice may have been the result of a more recent acculturation. Indeed, some researchers have written about how tribals in some villages believe that these horses and elephants facilitate the movement of their village spirits.  
The association of pottery with religion has continued through centuries and other than the figurines, ceremonial pots and vessels are in great demand during the numerous festivals, ceremonial occasions and rituals that take place through the year, in honour of deities. Some of the ceremonial potteries are in themselves the object of worship.

For instance, the Manosha ghot is a symbolic representation of the serpent goddess Manosha, originally a folk deity. She is believed to protect villagers from snake bites and is also a symbol og fertility and abundance.  There are two kinds of Manosha ghots - one is a stylized, globular, inverted terracotta pot, shaped like a vase, with a flared rim, with a depiction of the goddess painted on it in bright colours, usually yellow, red and black. These continue to be made by artists who were originally from Barishal in erstwhile East Bengal, but had migrated to  both districts of 24 Parganas, post partition.  

The Manasa ghot or bari found in Bankura and Garbeta area of Medinipur is also an inverted pot, but unpainted and with multiple serpent hoods rising above the pot. These are not only popular ritual objects but attractive decorative objects as well. The magnificent Manasa chali or jhar or merh is a unique votive sculpture peculiar to Bankura alone. Fired to a red or a black, this is a skilful, multi-tiered arrangement resting on a boat shaped vase. Figures like Gaur, Nitai, Behula-Lakhindar, Neti-Dhopani, Chand Sadagar, Siva etc are placed within the tiers and the whole unit is framed by a series of serpent hoods in a semi-circular fashion. The size of the Chali may vary from one foot to ten feet, and in width may go up to six or seven feet.

Another interesting ritual pot is that associated with Bara Thakur, a local village deity, whose worship is widely prevalent in and around the Sunderbans in South 24 Parganas. In some areas, locals liken Bara to the severed head of the forest and tiger god, Dakkhin Rai, though there is some controversy about the identity of these deities. The Bara murti is an inverted pot, the upper part of which elongates into the form of a leaf. While the pot is wheel turned, the leaf like extension is either hand-made or mould-made. Over a coat of chalk, crude bold lines of red and black represent the face of Bara Thakur, while the leaf like surface features a border framing a floral or geometric motif. The pots may be baked or unbaked. These are commonly sold in pairs – that of Bara or Dakkhin Rai, with a painted moustache and a female head without a moustache. There are various beliefs regarding the identity of the female head – this could be Bonbibi, the protector of the forests or Dakkhin Rai’s mother Narayani or his consort, Raimoni. Over time, a more Hinduized version began to prevail in other parts of South 24 Parganas: Dakkhin Rai became Narayan, and the female head, his wife, Lakshmi or Narayani. Together they would protect the household from evil. In this form, the worship was referred to as Bastu Puja

Bara Thakur rituals are observed on a mass scale in the middle of January (last day of the Bengali month of Poush and the first day of Magh). Paired terracotta heads are placed under trees by the villagers, to be replaced the following year by a new pair.  

Other ceremonial vessels which are not in themselves objects of worship are a variety of painted or etched (usually in Bankura) clay pots (harhis) and vases (ghots). Ritual clay lids (of storage pots) or sharas are also popular. These convex surfaces are painted with boldly executed motifs of goddess Lakshmi or Durga or Radha-Krishna or some other ritual figures. 

Krishnanagar Dolls

Apart from the utilitarian and the ritualistic pottery, the realistic pottery of Ghurni in Krishnanagar is in a category of its own. It was born out of the influence of European academic art introduced by the colonial rulers by the end of the 19th century. Since this art form flourished due to the huge royal patronage and enthusiastic support from the urban rich and the middle class of the time, it has not been considered as a form of folk clay art by many exponents in this field.   

These clay models of human figures, animals, fruits and flowers were made from unfired clay. The location of Ghurni near the river Jalangi provided the clay modellers with good quality clay.  These Krishnanagar dolls gained immense popularity with the British who also patronized this art and took them to the various exhibitions in England, making them a distinctive art form. 

However, its popularity started declining during the last few decades of the 20th century.  In the face of this decline and the silt from the Jalangi no longer providing the right kind of clay, traditional artists, who continue to make the hand-made dolls, struggle to survive. This state of affairs reflects in the quality of their workmanship. Nowadays, the figures lack that characteristic intricacy and attention to detail for which the dolls were renowned. Several artists from the younger generation have switched to fibre moulds which lack the extensive detailing associated with these dolls, much to the horror of the purists. Cheaper substitutes in plaster-of-Paris too have further threatened the art.

Tools and Techniques

Not only in Bengal or India, but all over the world, the potters’ tools and implements are very simple, and have remained, along with the technique of production, almost unchanged for centuries.

The tools have their local names, such as, Ucha, which is a semi-circular piece of bamboo, used for surface finishing; balya, a stone tool of about 3 ½” X 3” used as a beater of the inner surface of a pot; pitna, a wooden beater of about 10” X 4”, used for beating and shaping the outer surface of the pot and chiari, made of bamboo of about 4 ½” X ½”, used for decorating clay figures. Other tools include potters’ wheels and kilns (bhaati or poan) for firing. The kilns, located outside the house, are generally parabolic or circular in shape, locally known as Sheuna Poan and Berasal Poan respectively, with enclosures on all sides, and a permanent stroke-hole. 

The two broad categories of clay traditionally used in Bengal are loam and porous. The former is somewhat sandy while the latter, ‘etel-mati’, is sticky. Glossy or sticky clay is considered suitable for using on the wheel. This sticky clay has to be dug up from at least four to five feet below the ground in certain areas. The village potters work together to dig up clay for almost seven days at a stretch, when work resumes after the annual ritual break in the month of Jaishtha (May-June). This activity can be risky and precarious since mudslides are known to occur. The clay stock for the entire year is dug up and brought back in tractors, where available. This ranges from three to five cartloads with 200 lumps in each cart.

The clay is dried, powdered and sieved to separate it from pebbles and other impurities. It is then moistened and then kneaded well with the feet, a laborious process. In order to improve the quality of clay, certain tempering materials, such as ash, husks, cattle dung, saw-dust and sand are used. The prepared clay is kept covered with a damp cloth in readiness for shaping by hand, mould or wheel.  

Decorations on the clay objects, if any, are added on to the soft clay as relief work or as engravings. The clay models once ready are dried under a shed for several days. Unfinished pots, whether wheel-thrown or hand-made are all beaten, enlarged and smoothened with a wooden beater on a clay or stone anvil, to get the required shape.
It is the women of the community who then coat the objects with a slip, that is, natural earth pigments varying from light yellow to brown or red, which adds lustre to the pottery. These natural colours are traditionally prepared from Gad and Banak clay collected from riverbanks or bought from local vendors. 

Pigment is extracted from each of these clays by decantation and ageing respectively. Gad yields a yellowish, glazy and oily pigment while banak pigment is brownish, glazy and oily. Up to three coats of slip are applied, two of gad and one of banak on the clay figures which are sun dried for several days between coats. The painted models are dried once again.

Next, the clay models are arranged inside a huge kiln. These are covered with broken earthen pots and finally with a thick layer of straw and clay, so that the heat does not escape.  Usually, whatever the Kumbhakar creates over a period of roughly one month are put together in the kiln to make it cost-effective. The kiln is lit for 5-6 hours at one go and takes around 10-12 hours to cool down. Dry eucalyptus leaves are often used as fuel– because wood is expensive and difficult to procure. Potters may have their own kiln or sometimes 4-5 artisans together use the ‘bhati’ one after another, once it is lit.

The hues of the fired object depend on the fuel and duration of baking. The ochre yellow of the gad turns into a highly lustrous red after being burnt in the kiln. A shiny black colour is obtained when the smoke is not allowed to exit the kiln – by blocking the vents. The black is generated as a result of carbon accumulation on the objects. To further brighten the surface of the objects, they are often burnished with varnish.

In the villages where Gad is not used, two coatings of Banak are given; where Banak is not used, two coatings of Gad are given. Sometimes, Ela mati (a reddish orange soil) too is used as a slip coat, while in some cases, no slip coat is used. 

Some objects are painted post-firing, with traditional vegetable colours being replaced by readily available chemical colours. 

Ritualistic dolls of Rarh Bengal are never painted. They are fired to either terracotta red or black.. Most of these are partially made on the potter’s wheel and partially pinched and hand pressed then joined together and decorations superimposed. The assembled piece is then dried and fired in the kiln. 

Terracotta horses and elephants are made in separate parts on the wheel. Hollow portions like the body, legs and neck are then joined together with soft clay. The faces are fashioned by pinching, following which, a thin sliver of bamboo (chanchari) is used to incise the eyes, harness and other embellishments on the soft clay. After the figurines are sun dried, circular vents are made on appropriate parts of the body to allow the figurine to dry thoroughly. A clay slip (banak) is then applied all over by the women. When this dries, the figurines are baked in a kiln. The ears and tails are separately made from moulds and inserted into grooves in the body. 

The designs of terracotta votive horses once produced in Panchmura, Rajagram, Sonamukhi and Hamirpur, the principal centres in Bankura, varied a little from village to village while the votive horses in Medinipur were near primitive in form and sometimes completely hand modelled. Only Panchmura and Sonamukhi continue to produce votive animals today. 

The pottery of Panchmura was more sophisticated than those of the other villages (which were bulkier) and it is this form that garnered worldwide fame. Sizes of these artefacts can range from 6 inches to three feet. This long necked ‘Bankura Horse’ with its upright ears, endowed with grace, vigour and simplicity in its form, has now come to be regarded as the symbol of the artistic excellence of Indian rural handicrafts. It became the official logo of the Central Cottage Industries Emporium over 60 years ago (thanks to its active promotion by Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay who visited the area in the fifties). 

Taking note of this unique art form, the government awarded master craftsman Rashbehari Kumbhakar, the national award  in 1969, for his extraordinary craftsmanship and the high degree of artistry that he brought to the previously simple votive horse. His family tells us that it was he who created the first Bankura horse in the form that we know it today. It was this event that catapulted Panchmurha pottery into the limelight, and with soaring demand, the stylized Bankura horses started being mass produced by  potters across the village. Terracotta figures of horses and elephants began to be widely purchased not only by the ‘folk craft loving’ urban cognoscenti of Bengal but many foreign tourists as well. 

On the request of the Development Commisioner (DC) Handicrafts under the Ministry of Textiles, Rashbehari was asked to train batches of 15 potters several times. His grandson Bauldas, now a master artisan in his own right, continues to train others in the village. In this way, at least 60 families  of potters, since 1969, have been able to move from traditional clay pots and pans to clay sculpting. While this enabled them to move on to newer products, in the face of diminishing demand for clay utensils, these artisans struggle to survive.

With respect to the wide variety of small clay painted dolls made by the women, these have been usually very lightweight since they have to be carried manually to distant fairs by the potters and their womenfolk. To make such lightweight dolls, two moulds are used, for the front and back of the doll. A thin disk of clay is put into each mould to get the desired form. The pieces are then removed from the moulds and then joined back to back with clay paste, dried under the sun and then baked. Some dolls are partially mould made, with the head and arms added on with finger-pressed clay. Fully hand-pressed dolls are heavier. The dolls are made to look very attractive after they are finished with the application of multiple colours. Popular colours are green, red and blue, red being the dominant one.

Dolls made by the womenfolk of the potters’ community, are chiefly made by hand. Sometimes moulds are used. The dolls are mostly female figures, bearing a distinct resemblance to the various terracotta dolls and earthen tablets of ancient civilizations, discovered by archaeologists during excavations. The kumbhakar dolls are always fired and are primarily left unpainted.  

Bankura was once famous for its “mother” dolls symbolising Goddess Shoshthi. The style varied between the three principal centres of Bankura’s pottery – Panchmura, Rajagram and Sonamukhi. While the shoshthi dolls produced in Sonamukhi and Rajagram had bonnets and were red in colour, those of Panchmurha were black and without bonnets. These ‘shoshthi’ dolls have two or more children on their laps, a unique feature that distinguishes them from other mother dolls. In the present day, there are no master potters left in Rajagram and the few potters remaining only make vessels.  Shoshthi dolls in a more contemporary style are made in Adityapur, Birbhum.   

The traditional ‘rail’ doll of Bankura, though no longer popular, is still found in a few potter’s homes.  This is made by placing three or four hand-pressed dolls on a flat board, one behind the other with their hands resting on each other’s shoulders. This type of doll is mostly found in Panchmurha village. 

The primitive looking non-incised, non-pelleted, hand-made Jo Putul are now confined to the women patuas of East and West Medinipur alone. The figures are pressed from soft clay, sundried and low-fired in their home ovens. In some villages, they are painted with home-made herbal colours or readymade chemical colour.  

Like other rural art form, terracotta work also involves the entire family of the potter. Their wheel remains idle during the month of Baishak (April-May) and work resumes only from mid-May, after a ritual worship of the wheel during Chaka Puja. 

On the last day of Choitro (March-April), which is known as Choitro Sankranti, a shiv-lingam is the last object turned on the wheel by the potter in one go and all work on the wheel stops for the next thirty days. Work resumes on the first  Saturday of Jaishtha (May-June), that has an odd numbered date (3 or 5 or 7 ...), after the Chaka Puja ritual, in which the lingam is worshipped and then immersed. This is the only period of rest they get in the whole year, coinciding with the onset of summer. According to local folkloreLord Shiva resides in the lingam placed near the wheel and cannot be disturbed by any digging. On a more realistic note, it is possible the potters of yore chose not to work during a very hot month for fear of the pottery cracking.


After the firing of the products terracotta materials are sold at different markets. Products are divided on the basis of the nature and extent of decoration, and popularity according to the market demand. For example, the simplistic forms of horses and elephants are used in local rituals and hence have a local demand, therefore these are sold locally. Horses and elephants with elaborate decorations are mostly sold in national markets and different fairs in urban centres. 

Terracotta marketing ranges from selling of the products at local haats (bi-weekly markets) to regional, national and also international markets and craft fairs. Sales at different urban centres of the country and abroad depend on middlemen for procuring and transporting the artefacts. There are also instances of direct purchase of terracotta items from the terracotta making villages by whole sellers, casual and occasional buyers. 

Many potters (especially those from Panchmura) have temporary stalls at popular tourist destinations nearby where they sell a range of well-liked items including large and decorated horses and elephants.  

Fate of the Craft

Contrary to popular perception, the terracotta art form has survived primarily because of its association with religious practices and rituals. The fate of the secular aspect of this craft, as decorative pieces or dolls, across the variety of artefacts made, is pretty much the same – bleak.
Though the Bankura horse has travelled around the world, the 80 odd families in Panchmura today who have been engaged in the craft for generations, struggle to survive. The problems affecting them are numerous:

The Panchmura Potters’ Society established in 2005-06 helped the artisans acquire a plot of land for the raw material – clay, but this has been used up. Getting more land is an uphill task because clay used has to be collected from paddy fields from a depth of 5 feet. Landowners are reluctant to allow craftsmen to dig their land for clay as it affects cultivation. A field is good for four to six years. Once the water level is reached, a new plot needs to be acquired. The digging is risky as mudslides can happen (lives have been lost) and a modern bulldozer is no match for the sticky clay. Procuring clay and processing it (by stamping on it for hours) are the two most difficult and laborious aspects of their craft. No technology has been made available to them to eliminate this problem. 

Electricity too is a problem and they have to depend on scarce firewood. Artisans are thus often compelled to prepare miniatures, which can dry in the sunlight and don`t require intense firing.
Packing and carting the fragile goods all the way to government outlets in Kolkata and New Delhi is a major problem, with at least 50 per cent of the horses get damaged in transit. 

Marketing is a huge roadblock as only a handful of artists (the chosen few) are able to directly market their products in urban centres such as Kolkata and Delhi, that too because of personal endeavour while the rest are forced to sell in the local markets or through middlemen. Most live below the poverty line with the average daily income of the potter is a meagre Rs 80-100 (during the festival months) and only the skillful ones can earn around Rs 200-300 per day. Adding salt to their wounds is that middlemen rule and fleece the craftsmen. The financial hardship has lead to many giving up their hereditary vocation. 

Many artisans have switched over from making horses and elephants to utility items like conches, flower vases, ashtrays to find a larger market. But the design intervention was not followed up with sufficient marketing aid and the market did not really take off. 

Admittedly, the government is far more sensitive to their needs than ever before, feel the Panchmura artisans, and some efforts with an eye on tourism have been made. The village has been spruced up and a resource centre and office built. Arrangements for a centralized work space for potters are also in progress and an Industrial Co-operative for the potters is being considered. But many training programmes by the government have proved ineffective since they were isolated from their core needs and skills. Funding needed for the new infrastructure or technology advocated by the training was left unaddressed. Hence artisans follow the same old traditional practices of their ancestors. In recent years, the Panchmura artisans have taken recourse to moulded tiles and wall murals for which a market seems to have developed. 

Clay doll makers too are no better off. The dolls, so carefully crafted, fetch very nominal prices. They have practically lost the battle against attractive toys of plastic and a variety of other new age materials. Children no longer desire them. The character of village fairs and other rural has changed and traditional (non votive) toys have lost their popularity. The only hope left is for this excellent genre of folk art is for the dolls to be revived as decorative items.