Since time immemorial, terracotta has been an integral part of the cultures of the Indian subcontinent. Each state of the country has some form of pottery, with its unique style and features. In Rajasthan, terracotta has taken the form of the Molela plaque art, which now has a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag.
The art form takes its name from the village of Molela, on the banks of the clay-providing River Banas, near Nathdwara in the district of Rajsamand. These bright terracotta plaques and figurines of the local deities and gods have acquired international recognition now. A long journey from its beginning aeons back, which started out to cater to the requirements of the local tribals and those from as far as Madhya Pradesh. The tribal people would reach Molela early in the year to buy the brightly painted terracotta plaques with figures of their deities, the Devnarayan or Dharmaraja, and Nagaraja, or the snake god.
A Strong Past
If you have been to Udaipur City railway station, you would have noticed Molela plaques decorating its walls, giving the structure a distinctive look. Traditionally, these plaques are installed in religious places of worship, and the gods are shown astride a horse, a bull, a pig, a dog, and even a crocodile. The potters of Molela have been practising this craft for more than a thousand years, as they balance between making utilitarian items such as water pots, vessels for cooking, etc., and plaques with figurines.
There are two types of clay that the Molela potters use pure, soft clay, and sandy clay. The soft clay is used for creating practical items, and after it has dried to a grey shade, it is baked to turn it into the red or brown of the terracotta you see in the final product. When the product is smoke-fired in a closed kiln, it acquires a lustrous black finish.
For the plaques, the sandy, dry clay lumps are broken down into dust and sieved through a wire mesh to clean it of rock bits and to make it finer. It is mixed with a low percentage of donkey dung, making it ideal for creating the Molela panels and other sculptures. This &lsquoimpure&rsquo clay is also used to make gher, or the pots used to create the kiln.
Colour Me Good
The artisans use natural mineral colours to bring color to the panels. So, the palewa or the clay slip is mixed with water to acquire a silverish colour, while the red shade comes from geru or red soil. A vegetable gum, the dawrigund, is collected from the local trees to be used as a binder. The jala, or lacquer coat, is the final step in making the plaque and is never replaced with chemical varnishes, as the plaques are used for worship. It is reported that in the entire region, only one family concocts the jala.
While the demand for plaques with forms of deities is still high, the business of Molela clay art has also turned towards making tablets that depict rural life, wedding processions, etc. This development has led to better financial stability for the artisans, as more work is coming to them, and that too, year-round, instead of the earlier situation of seasonal work.
Getting There Molela is 362 km away from Jaipur on the NH 48 49 km from Udaipur on the NH 58 and 13 km from Nathdwara on the NH 162 extension. All distances are approximations.