The Exceptional Terracottas of Molela
At first glance, Molela looks like any other hamlet in rural Rajasthan, but look closer and you will realise just how remarkable it is. Situated 50 km from Udaipur, Molela is known for its unique terracotta work, particularly its ‘Molela plaques’, and there is evidence of this art everywhere.
The Molela Terracottas are made by the Kumhars, or potter community, more specifically the Prajapats or Prajapatis. These colourful plaques are usually palm-size, rectangular plates of clay. Depicting local gods and goddesses worshipped by tribal communities such as the Bhils, Gujjars and Jats, from Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, they are installed in temples and homes, in towns and villages across the region. Keep your eyes peeled and you will also see contemporary versions of these plaques decorating the facades of homes, buildings, and even Udaipur railway station!
The Molela Terracottas are more than just exquisite clay plaques. They are made from a very specific type of clay and are fashioned in a way that is unique to the potters of Molela. The tradition is believed to be more than 800 years old and has an interesting origin story.
The Kumhars of Molela believe that Lord Devnarayan, the deity most prominently represented on these terracottas, had appeared to one of their ancestors in a dream, and asked him to make a likeness of him in clay. The man was reluctant as he was blind but he did so anyway. As a reward, his vision was restored.
Lord Devnarayan & Other Terracotta Gods
Lord Devnarayan, a central deity of the tribals in the region, is the most commonly depicted god on the Molela Terracottas. He is believed to be a Gujjar warrior and also an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is particularly important for the pastoral communities of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, especially the Gujjars.
As a protector, he is depicted with a large moustache and seated on a horse. According to legend, he rides through the villages to protect the villagers from evil. The Devnarayan Katha, the life story of Lord Devnarayan, is narrated and performed extensively among these communities. Other folk and Brahmanical deities such as Gogaji, Durga, Chamunda and Kali, are also depicted on the Molela Terracottas.
Tribal and agricultural communities like the Bhils, Gujjars, Jats and Garijats descend on Molela from January to March, to source these clay plaques for their temples. Sometimes, they are accompanied by their priests, who help them pick them out.
The tribals change these plaques almost every year, as they are susceptible to wear and tear. This not only creates a stream of income of the potters of Molela, it also keeps the art, culture and tradition that surround these terracottas alive. Although payment is usually made in cash, grain and other agricultural produce is sometimes bartered for these terracottas!
Making the Molela Terracottas
The Molela plaques are made using local red soil collected from the shallows of the Banas River near the village. First, the clay is cleaned the impurities removed. Water is added to the clay, which is then kneaded and mixed by hand and with the feet, usually by women. Donkey dung is added to the clay to improve its durability and give it a smooth texture. Traditionally, men get involved during the next stage, in the creation of the plaques.
Uniquely, the Molela Terracottas are made with limited use of the potter’s wheel. It is almost non-existent in the traditional technique. The panels, known as thalas, are rectangular. They depict not only local deities but scenes that include a narrative. So they can be very intricate.
The relief on the plaque is created by layering coils of clay on the surface. Once the figure takes shape, details like facial features and ornamentation are carved into the soft clay with a sharp, chisel-like tool. Some plaques are standalone panels but, usually, a series of panels is placed together to tell a story.
There is considerable skill used in the plaque-making process, including the intermittent drying of the panels. The potters prefer to make them during winter since summers are harsh and this would make the plaques dry too quickly, making them susceptible to cracking.
After the plaques are prepared, they are fired in a kiln at 800 °C. They are then painted with a red slip,which adds a layer of protection and the signature reddish-brown colour of these terracotta plaques.
The Molela Terracottas have received a Geographic Indicator tag, which denotes the exclusive geographic origin of a specific product. The state of Rajasthan, known for its unique arts and crafts, has 11 products with GI tags.
LHI spoke to Rajendra Kumar, a traditional artisan from Molela village and recipient of a National Award (2016) for his craft. He says his father was highly respected and introduced many innovations to the Molela Terracottas. For instance, he expanded the themes depicted on these plaques to include stories from Hindu epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as deities of the Jain and Buddhist pantheons. The artists of Molela also started depicting scenes from everyday life in their art. Today, plaques that showcase village scenes are very popular and their visual narratives are particularly charming. To keep their craft financial viable, the Molela artisans also make terracotta lamps, diyas and decorative items.
A Declining Art
Although the Molela Terracottas are appreciated even overseas, the number of artisans practicing this art is very small. The village comprises 100-150 families, but only 25-30 people are actually involved in the art. Many of the craftspersons practice agriculture to supplement their income. What is worrisome is that few, if any, from the present generation are interested in learning this art.
Also, the artisans of Molela are facing a huge raw material crunch due to brick factories that have been set up in their region. These factories have been set up here due to the presence of the rich soil on the banks of the Banas, the very clay needed to make the terracottas.
The artisans point to another challenge – transporting the terracotta plaques is difficult due to their fragility. Hence, it is difficult to sell them outside the village. The artisans say they lose 20-40 per cent of their inventory when they attempt to take their products out of Molela for exhibitions or shows.
As a result, the famous Molela Terracottas are in danger of becoming extinct in the not-too-distant future. If that happens, the country will lose a unique cultural practice and a wonderful art form.
The Harappan Seal is a continuity of ancient legacy and made using the same technique as the Molela Terracotta art. Get this Harappan Seal with Peepul Tree World here