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Molela: Chitra Balasubramaniam tells of the picturesque tiles of one area in India.

A SIMPLISTIC VILLAGE SCENE, NO NOT ON CANVAS, BUT ON CLAY, METICULOUSLY CRAFTED, THERE are other charming and religious stories of Gods and Goddesses, those describing the valour of Kings and Princes, the local hero Pabuji is brought alive, each votive, descriptive beautifully executed in clay--the picturesque world of pottery from Molela. Call it decorated plaques, votives or sculptured tiles or any other name that comes to your mind, what cannot be denied is the sheer beauty of these pieces.

Locally it is called Molela Pottery or Molela Clay works. The pottery gets its name from the village Molela in Rajastha, India where it is made. It is a small village approximately 40 kms from famous Udaipur and 620 kms from Delhi. This tradition of making the pottery has been on for centuries. The process has seen some change but in most has been preserved in all its pristine glory. Given its particular peculiarity, it has been granted a GI or Geographical Indicator tag meaning only that clay relief work made in Molela can be called Molela Clay works. This has given a further boost to the craft as also design development. What is striking is that though used for worship and in temples once upon a time, today they are at ease in urban homes. Many a home has got the walls of the driveway covered with plaques of this kind. It is visually beautiful, evocative of another era, taking the person back centuries when pottery may have just begun.

One of the renowned potters of Molela art is Mohan Lalji Kumhar, he is a National Awardee (as a Master Craftsman), a title given by the Government of India and presented by the President of India. He is also a Shilp Guru, meaning a Guru in his recognised field and has received the Padma Shri also. I speak to his son, Rajendra Kumhar, whom I have seen occasionally at local handicraft exhibitions. Rajendra Kumhar has chosen to follow the traditional craft of his ancestors and revels in it. The usual bitterness is not there that I have seen amongst a lot of youngsters when being forced into the craft. He wants to experiment and work on it and take the craft on to a higher level.

The work by Mohan Lalji and his sons is done through a firm called Mohan Terracotta. It is a family run firm. There are around 25 families in the area who do this and all of them work together. This they do as they all belong to the same caste (Kumhar or potter's caste) and are related. Rajendra has learnt it since he was a child and has seen his father and relatives do it. Rajendra adds, "my family has been doing it for generations. I can count up to 20 generations before me. Generation after generation have been involved in doing this." The work as it is put may be more than 2000 years old and his family working in it more than 200 years. This family is amongst the well known in the area. There are around 46 families in this area who are involved with the craft and the Government of Rajasthan under the aegis of its own body RUDA (Rural Non Farm Development Agency) is also involved in furthering this craft and ensuring that more people do it.


The history or the origins of this craft is interesting. Like all Indian crafts, it is a mix of stories, mythology, religious invention and it is usually verbal. Origins of most forms of pottery are linked to mythological stories and are directly linked to religion and worship. An unusual story about the origin is told to me by Rajendra. He says, "there were two brothers of which one was blind. Devnarayan, the local God worshipped in the entire region of Mewar (Rajasthan) appeared in his dream. He is said to have told him that if he made a clay idol of Devnarayan, he would get his sight back. The next day, he had not got his sight. So he was distraught. The next night, the Lord again appeared in his dreams and gave him precise instruction on where to find the mud and how to make the idol. In the morning when he got up, his sight had been restored. In joy, he followed the instructions to the core and thus began the sacred art of Molela." Different versions of this story exist. A further detail, presented in the GI Application Number 67 on this craft, states thus, "The potters believe that their ancestors have come from Abu to Nadol (in Pali district) and then finally to the village of Molela. Even today, on important religious occasions, they go to worship their kul Devi, Ashapura Devi, whose main temple is in Nadol in Pali district. Since the past 11-12 generations, the potters have settled in Molela. It seems that prior to coming to Molela, the potter families were primarily making the usual earthenware domestic utensils such as water pots, lamps, containers for clarified butter, containers to keep curd and so forth, but after settling in Molela, the destiny of these potters, took a turn."

In the book Handmade in India: A Geographic Encyclopedia of India Handicrafts, Aditi Ranjan (Editor) and M P Ranjan (Editor) say, "The Kumbhars Potters of Molela make an assortment of domestic clay vessels, but it is the hand-modelled, hollow relief votive plaques that they are famous for. Every year during the month of Maag (January to February) various tribal communities, notably the Bhil, the Gujjar and Garijat, arrive at Molela accompanied by their bhopa, priests, in order to buy new votive images of their deities.


The process of making is explained by Rajendra, although he makes it sound simple. It is painstaking as mostly everything is done by hand with little use of machines. The potters wheel is used only rarely, if a new form has to be shaped it is done on the wheel to clarify an idea. Otherwise the entire process is done by hand without any mold. The clay used is chikni mitti or mud for making ceramics obtained from the pond or such other place. To this is added reta or sand. The proportion of both is equal. To this is added donkey's dung. Rajendra explains, "if the clay mix is 100 then 20 to 25 percent donkey's dung is added depending on the season. In summer it is less while in winter it is more." The reason that donkey's dung is added is also quite unique. Rajendra further says, "The reason why donkey's dung is added is because it makes the mixture smooth. It gives it a natural smoothness, this ensures that there is no crack in the final tile. Also when the plaque is baked or fired, the dung simply burns off. This acts to reduce the weight of the piece."

The chikni mitti is first sieved to remove any impurities and stones. The mixture is made. It is then kneaded with hand and the feet. The making of objects can start immediately. Although as Rajendra adds, "if it is made in the evening we can start working on it the next day with ease." The entire process is done with hands. Few tools are used. The G I--Application Number 67 states them as," 1) Pindi: a round stone piece with a knob on top to hold it. This tool is used to hammer the mud flat. 2) Paata: is a rectangular piece of wood, used to flatten the plaque laid horizontal. 3) Bhaaladi: It is a small flat chisel-like instrument made of metal and used to crop the extra clay. The tip of the tool is used to mark small depressions in the plaque image. The edge of the broad front is used to achieve diagonal linear impressions on the plaque." Rajendra explains the third tool used saying, "It is a form of a knife which is crafted out of iron. Actually, in olden days it was shaped from the bows and arrows that were used during war. Today, we get it made specifically by the local ironsmith. These tools are not readily available in the market but we make them specially."

The process has been explained succinctly in the Handmade in India: A Geographic Encyclopedia of India Handicrafts, as, "The murti, images, are built up and refined through a combination of basic clay working techniques: squeezing, pinching and coiling on a flat clay slab. The process has to be halted at intervals to allow the clay to dry somewhat and prevent the hand-modelled forms from collapsing. Foliage, animal forms and decorative elements are all similarly rendered and the composition is gradually elaborated. Once complete, the murti is sun-dried before it is considered ready for firing. After being fired, the murti may be painted with stone and mineral colours and is finally finished with a coat of locally made lacquer."

The size of the tile depends on the requirement. It is usually made as one whole piece and then cut smaller according to the size required. In case it needs to be used as a single panel, that can also be done. The slab is first rolled out. Once the dimension is achieved, the craftsman starts making the figurines in 3D or three dimensions. The size of the panel can vary from a few inches to one foot to even six by four feet. The clay model is allowed to dry in the sun. Once dry, it is then fired. Firing is done at 700[degrees]C in open kilns. In local language it is referred to as bhatti. Traditional wood fired kilns are used. Electricity usually plays hooky in these parts and continuous power is not available. Thus using electric fired kilns is difficult. The same is the case with gas kilns. Wood is available in plenty and is infinitely cheaper than electricity or gas fired kilns. The temperature of the kiln starts at 700[degrees]C and is then increased to 1000[degrees]C. The potters are well versed in the art of measuring the temperature by seeing the colour of the burning wood. The firing starts at a low temperature and is then taken to high fired. They know when to stop on seeing the kiln light up in green colours and the wood burns a deep red. Rajendra explains to me and I nod, it is years of hands-on practice that has honed their skills. Otherwise, the educated populace depends on temperature controls to understand the temperature of the kiln. The tiles are placed in the kiln like a standing slab, one above the other. If it is kept one on top of the other, it develops cracks.


The history gives a clear indication as to the undeniable interlinking with religion. It is what is made by the tile makers that is a literal eye opener. In the book Handmade in India, Handmade in India: A Geographic Encyclopedia of India Handicrafts, it says, "The deities whose images appear on Molela terracotta may be part of the mainstream Hindu pantheon (Chamunda, Kali, Durga, Ganesha) or more commonly, regional divinities whose cults are rooted in animistic belief systems(for example Nagadeva) or in folk legends celebrating local heroes and heroines (for example, Dev Narayan, Tejaji, Pabuji, Gora Bhairav, Kala Bhairav, Vasuki, Bhoona and Mendu, Sadumata, Panch-mukhi)."

Nearly everything that can be drawn can be crafted onto these tiles. Rajendra says, "the changes were brought about post 1981, when modernity was introduced. This was when the transformation of making tiles for home use and not for worship happened. Crockery and modernised culture started being portrayed." Any level of customisation is possible. Before 1981, they were still tiles but they were made purely for worship. Idols were made but rarely. Unlike in other temples where idols are worshipped, here it is done in the form of tiles only. So these tiles are made as offerings on the fulfilment of a vow or wish and they are given on auspicious occasions. The themes therefore are drawn heavily from religion and mythology. The various Gods mentioned in history are carefully crafted as narratives and made on plaques. Devanaryan, the God, is made and so is the local hero Pabhuji. These continue to be made.

It is, however, the modern elements that have been introduced into the narratives that make them more popular. As Rajendra says, "we can reproduce any drawing. If you give us any photo, we can use it. When we have to work on a new series or new set of stories, we read the stories from the area. This helps develop our imagination." He explains how recently they made a plaque for Ajmer (the holy town in Rajasthan) where local stories and historical tales of that area, Kings, Rana Pratap, Meera Bai were all included. They read up on the stories and executed the images. The Delhi Metro has a beautiful plaque made by them.

Given the impetus by the government, the number of craftsman has increased. This adds to the woes of Rajendra who says they bring down the quality of the work. They bring down the prices and people stop appreciating fine or meticulous work. With design intervention, craftsmen have started making other utility items also as they sell better in the market.

Chitra Balasubramaniam is a freelance feature writer based out of New Delhi, India and has been writing on arts, crafts, design and environment. Documenting old crafts including pottery, which is visible in myriad techniques across the country, its revival, innovation, is her forte. Freelance writing satiates the creative urge and it is different from her academic background of commerce with a post-graduation in business administration, though she still does some good financial analysis.

All images are courtesy of Rajendra Kumhar, Mohan Terracotta.
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Author:Balasubramaniam, Chitra
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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