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Ayyanar pottery: Chitra Balasubramaniam details the richness of an Indian tradition.

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INDIAN TRADITIONAL POTTERY IS A REMARKABLE COMBINATION OF THE religious, utility driven for the home, as a part of village architecture, as a wall decorative element and, today, it finds extension with its contemporary leaning. Despite the myriad uses, what it retains is its typical freshness and earthy flavour. From the innocuous mud is shaped a world of tradition, custom and heritage that is simply passed on from one generation to the next with nary a change. The customs and beliefs stand tall and go on undisturbed for centuries with minimal alterations and innovation. This is true for pottery that is used for ritualistic purposes and for worship. When it comes to the use of pottery for the social or day to day use, however, the parameters vary and experimentation abounds. This is the story of Ayyanar pottery which has its roots in the rituals and traditions of the place but today finds artistic expressions that take it beyond the ritual. My meeting with the potter at Delhi's craft museum set in motion a place for the study of this form of craft. The skill to shape these objects using clay is a testament to the skills of the maker. What I have understood and gleaned is a small drop in the ocean of this age old tradition.

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The Crafts Museum, New Delhi, has a beautiful shrine built in the Ayyanar tradition. Walking past it would transport me to a typical village in Tamil Nadu seen in the passing. What stood out was the beauty of the figurines, their stark folk-like qualities, the size and beautiful expressions coupled with tremendous skill of the potters in making them. A chance meeting at the same place of a terracotta artist (a specialist in Ayyannar tradition whose father had made the shrine) gave me an idea about the intricacies of the ancient craft and the much valued hereditary profession.

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R Meyyar, is an hereditary craftsman who has been in the profession for more than 25 years. It is a skill practiced by his father and grandfather, handed down in the family and Meyyar is a proud bearer of the heritage. Meyyar takes pride in this hereditary skill, a pride not common among descendants of craftsmen. He adds, "only people from our community can do it. Outsiders will not be able to learn it. They can spend time on it but they find it difficult to learn the intricacies. It is something inborn in us. It comes to us naturally." As he begins to expound, it becomes abundantly clear that, though the craft may seem easy to them, it is painstakingly done, using hard labour as only the most basic of tools is used. Every operation is manual with absolutely no use of any mechanical or electrical tool. This craft is popular in the Pudukottai District of Tamil Nadu, Meyyar hails from Mazhaiyur in Pudukkottai district. His father Rengaswamy has learnt from his grandfather. How many years has this craft been with the family, no one knows. Some put the ancientness of the craft to more than 400 years old or more.

R Meyyar knows little of the origins but says, "earlier there was a concept of propitiating the lower half of a pot to the temples. Now no one uses these pots for cooking. Also, earlier the figurines were simplistic without any ornamentation. They were stark. Today, they are more beautiful and finished. There is emphasis on decoration which we were not doing earlier." The craft has probably been dismissed as local tradition which is why it finds little mention in books. It has not been documented in as great a tradition as other pottery techniques from India. Jane Perryman, in her book Traditional Pottery of India, however, has covered it in detail.

The origin of Ayyanar is not clear. What is known is that Ayyanars are Gramadevata or village Gods who protect the villagers from invasion, diseases, drought and other evil forces. They are believed to have powers to shower blessings, good health and wealth on the villagers. There are plenty of stories about Ayyanars, how they came into existence, each village has its own particular tale to tell. Some believe that Ayyanar was created by Lord Shiva to act as a benevolent protector. The making of the Shrine is a process in itself done on an auspicious day. The mixing of mud, adding something from the old, making of the limbs of the Gods and eyes, again is done on auspicious days. New figures are consecrated every few years, some figures are offered on the fulfilment of a vow or granting of a wish. This is especially so when blessed with a child or a daughter being married off. The Ayyanar is flanked by two of his consorts, Puma and Pushkala. Perryman explains in her book that Puma represents desire while Pushkala represents action, while Ayyanar is the desire to protect and carry out duties. There are worship rituals for each. In addition, there is Karappan or Demon God--called Sangli Karappan. The fleet of horses are meant for the guards to ride and save the village from trouble.

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When Ayyanar shrines have to be made or figurines that size have to be made, the potters take their mud with them. The mud is mixed with straw and husk, the proportion of which is known by rote to them. This ensures the quality of the figures and it does not crack so easily. Thus the making of Ayyanar shrines can be Ayyanar pottery.

Meyyar describes the beautiful temple or a look alike shrine made at the Crafts Museum. He adds, "my father worked with seven persons for three months and handcrafted the entire shrine here. It has 160 figurines." He reels of the names of the figurines, "elephant, horse, kali, karuppar, muniyar, muneswar, munadiyar, there are 10 types of horses, 10 types of bulls, rabbits, around 15 of them and more." When it is crafted for ritualistic purposes, there is a festival held, the figures are carried on horses beautifully and ceremoniously decorated.

THE MAKING OF THE FIGURINES

Meyyar is at the Crafts Museum to demonstrate his skill. Since what he makes is sold locally and is for decorative purposes, he experiments with locally available clay. So the mud has not been carted from the village. Often the craftsmen do just that, simply cart loads of mud so that they can be sure of the quality and end result. Meyyar and his wife work together as she is also equally skilled at making this pottery.

The making of the figurine is done on the ground, squatting on the floor at home. At the demonstration at the museum, it is placed on the wheel. The entire figure is shaped by hand. A small amount of mud is taken and beaten. It is allowed to dry a bit and immediately the next layer is added to it. It involves the typical process of coiling, beating and adding the next layer. So it is like a cover or slip of mud that is added to the figure. The work starts with the limbs/legs, the body and then the face. Each is shaped and added using the coiling, beating technique.

This process continues till the entire figure is shaped. The entire process is done by hand. The mud is shaped and beaten with a bat-like object. The bat-like objects are actually wooden implements that are handy and easy to hold. The mud is beaten, attached and then made higher. Slowly the figurine takes shape. No measuring instruments or units are used. The work is done by rote. Meyyar says with pride, "give me a photograph and I can craft it in mud for you."

The figures are further adorned or decorated beautifully and the ornamentation is done simultaneously. The decoration sticks only when the mud is wet otherwise it falls off. The ornamentation includes small flowers, dots, shells and more. They are shaped of mud by hand and simply stuck on to the wet mud. The craft is learnt from an early age.

The figure, once it is complete with all decoration in place, is then baked. It is baked using firewood and the firing is done for 10 to 15 figures. The kiln is an open one, so the temperature can be checked. Mayyar adds, "it is baked at 900[degrees]C and we know instinctively when it is ready. When the objects are golden in colour, we take out the logs. The temperature then can also be 1000[degrees]C. It is by experience that we know when the object is perfectly baked." Since no colouration is added, the colour of the object is a gift of the kiln. Small figures, which are three quarters of a foot to a foot, are shaped by hand. The bigger ones are made on moulds. If someone wants it coloured it is finished as such. Some people prefer the terracotta colour of a rich red brown hue, so it is finished as such. Master craftsmen or those skilled at making large figurines, however, do so without the use of moulds. The figurines for shrines are 10 feet or more in height and are made freehand without the use of moulds.

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Meyyar tells me for the nth time, "I have learnt the craft since childhood watching my father and grandfather do it. It is a hereditary craft and is in our blood and genes. An outsider if he struggles a lot can learn it but he will find it extremely difficult. It comes to us naturally."

Though now the family has gained recognition and value their art, it is with tears in their eyes that they recall old days, when they used to carry out pots and pans for daily use on their heads to eke out a living. Since the opportunity to make the shrines were few, far between, regular income came from making pots, pans and other household utensils for daily use. These were then taken in a basket to neighbouring villages and towns to provide for their daily bread. The earning was a pittance and it was abject poverty.

It is only when this craft of making the shrines was discovered that they were invited to demonstrate. From a village rural work, it earned acclaim as a distinct craft with invitations to demonstrate coming from around the world. It has been a case of never looking back since then. Apart from recreating shrines for museums, smaller objects for homes, gardens and farmhouses is what the work has moved on to. The way of making the objects is similar to figurines crafted for the shrines, but it is the experimentation with the shapes for figurines that can now be called the hallmark of innovation. There are horses with varied shapes, bulls with heads bent low, upright horses, elephants. Since the figurines age well outdoors, they do not need much maintenance and are ideally sought after as garden pieces. This provides them with ample opportunity to experiment. Most of the figurines thus crafted have improvised shapes. The inspiration still comes from mythology but it is the contemporary twist to mythological figures that makes the new figurines refreshingly different.

One of the most beautiful of the creations is the nandi or the bull. The nandi when done for ritualistic purposes is sleeping or in the sitting posture. The modern one though has its own attitude and is bent with an arrogant tilt of the head. As Meyyar says, "it is more stylish when compared to the old one." The inspiration for the modernistic creations is not difficult with so many mythological and historical figures to choose from. The craftsmen simply add their personal twists to the creations. The original figures have horses of 15 kinds, this can with their own permutation combination being extended to more 50 odd numbers. Bulls, rabbits and human figures provide enough material to craft exclusive pieces. The bull and horse though are favourites made time and again. The folkish appearance of the figures even in their contemporary avatar adds to the charm of this old tradition.

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Chitra Balasubramaniam is a Delhi based freelance journalist.
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Author:Balasubramaniam, Chitra
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2014
Words:2054
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