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Utilisation of clay in Nepal (part II): Zeliha Yayla discusses the traditional ceramic art and crafts of Nepal.

NEPALESE HANDICRAFT HISTORY CAN BE TRACED BACK TO THE STONE AGE WHEN HUMAN BEINGS had no tools of any kind. The history of artistic handicrafts began during the 5th century AD, when different religious diversity began in Nepal. Hence we see a lot of religious influence on Nepalese handicrafts. Today Nepal resembles a continuous art gallery and museum where craft, art and architecture are inextricably intermingled. The finest woodcarving and the best sculpture are often part of a building. A temple is simply not a temple without its finely carved roof struts. Architecture, painting, bronze figures, pottery, ritual masks, handmade rice papers, dyeing and printing are the various art and craft forms of Nepal.

Pottery making has been a notable traditional craft in Nepal adopted both as a primary and supplementary occupation of some ethnic groups. It has been their family traditional occupation rather than a commercial job. The traditional ceramic items used in Nepal can be classified as follows:

1. Ceramic building materials: bricks, tiles, doors and windows made of clay, sewage pipe and so forth.

2. Utensils: cooking pots, stoves, plates and so forth.

3. Decorative items: idols, flower vases and others.

4. Coins and Seals: various coins of different sizes and shapes.

Terracotta has been used in Nepal since the start of the Christian era as indicated by samples of terracotta found in Kathmandu Valley date back approximately to that time. Entirely made of common clay, baked and left unglazed, most were essential household utilities such as the tiles for roofs, jugs, pitchers, kitchenware and lamps. Other works were made for decorative purposes.

Today, traditional pottery centres are focused in Bhaktapur and Thimi area within the Kathmandu Valley. The traditional pottery wares of Thimi are all produced by using old methods from the red earthenware clay indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley. There are many types of clay found in the Kathmandu Valley, all with different colours ranging from white to black and from yellow, red to brown. For common bricks and tiles, grey and black clays are commonly used. Grey and brown clays are best for quality plaster, red clays are used to make pavers. White clays are used for internal and external paintings.

For the methods and properties of clays see Ceramics TECHNICAL (Issue 35, 2012, p 14). Today industrialised equipment and methods are being used side-by-side with the traditional hand techniques by potters in Thimi. For example, while some potters are using wheels made of concrete-filled truck tires for throwing, the others use electric wheels. At each step of pottery production there is evidence of the means of increased efficiency.

Krishna Kaji Prajapati who is the owner of Krishna Art Ceramics studio in Thimi, Nepal is using new methods and machines to produce daily use and religious ceramics. Wood kilns made of fibre frax and electric kilns are used for terracotta and glaze firings.

For clay processing equipment, an extruder is used that gives a homogeneous water clay mix in a much shorter time than does foot wedging. Also the forming process is accomplished by using an electric wheel and plaster moulds instead of using a paddle and anvil.

Prajapati has explained that they are using two different kinds of glazes with fritted forms in such a way that one is opaque, the other is transparent. Mainly, the chosen colours are green, blue and cream tones. Coloured oxides are imported from India.

Owing to the Nepal ceramics Co-operative Society which was set up in the mid 1990s, most of the potters have learnt about glaze technology. Now lead-free fritted glazes are being used for the glazing process at some ceramics studios in Thimi.

Thimi is not only an art centre for pottery, but also for the making of clay masks. People can easily watch the mask makers at work. The art of mask making is a heritage and it is endemic to Nepal. The masks representing gods, goddesses, demons and animals can be classified as follows: 1) masks that represent gods and are worn by humans, 2) ornamental masks that are used in temples in observance of religious rituals, 3) masks that are used in processions while celebrating festivals and Jatras.

The masks made traditionally as well as in contemporary times, are made by members of the Newar Chitrakar (Mask Makers) community of painters. I have visited Purna Krishna Chitrakar's mask studio (Chitrakar Mask Making) in Thimi, Nepal. Chitrakar's family members have devoted themselves to this art. Prem Krishna Chitrakar (the son of Purna Krishna) explained to me the steps of mask making as follows: Clay is mixed with cotton and water to make the clay softer and stronger. After the clay is ready, it is beaten with a wooden mallet to give it the shape of a sheet. Then it is placed on a mould by pressing slowly with the fingers to create eyes, nose, lips and other parts of the mask.

After removing excess clay parts, it is left to dry on the moulds which have been covered with clean cloths of fine quality to prevent the clay from adhering to the mould. The drying process is done in shady places to prevent cracking. Drying time depends upon the size of the mask. During this process, the masks shrink and begin hardening. After the drying process, the masks are removed from the moulds and then are painted with a mixture of wheat flour and animal glue which gives an opaque finish. This mixture is applied to the back of the masks and covered with large pieces of jute, giving the masks additional strength. The same glue is next applied to the front of the mask and strips of low-grade Nepalese rice paper are placed on the surface, creating a smoother finish.

After the drying process, mask makers apply a white mixture that is prepared by grinding white clay in a pestle and mixing it water and glue. The white pigment acts as a base colour. Then the face of the mask is polished with natural jute to give the surface a smoother finish. Now, the masks are ready for painting. Paints are supplied from India but a red one is found in Nepal. It is natural ore that is called Zinnober (HgS). It is ground to obtain the desired red pigment. All pigments are mixed with animal glue and are thinned with water. After painting, the masks are varnished with several applications of the beaten whites of duck eggs. When they have been varnished the masks are finished.

The handicrafts of Nepal are produced in traditional ways from generation to generation leading the footpath of ancestors or from forefather to grandfather, to father and to son and this continuity has meant the survival of Nepalese handicrafts, preserving their heritage, cultural values and traditions.

References nepaltradbuildmat.pdf, "Traditional Materials and Construction Technologies used in the Kathmandu Valley" Caterina Bonapace and Valerio Sestini.

Kailash, A journal of Himalayan Studies, Vol.IV. 1978, Number 2. art-crafts.html.

Interview with Purna Krishna Chitrakar, October 2012, in Thimi.

Interview with Krishna Kaji Prajapati, October 2012, in Thimi.

Zeliha Yayla is a Professor of Chemistry at Dokuz Eylul University, Izmir, Turkey. She has many publications on ceramics chemistry and also studies chemistry and art integration (
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Author:Yayla, Zeliha
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:May 1, 2013
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