Whilst working on my sculpture commission in Udaipur, Rajasthan this February I took a visit to Molela, a small pottery village situated in the Rajsmand district of Rajasthan on the banks of the River Banas, made special by its tradition of unique terracotta plaques that has been in existence for centuries.
I have made several trips to Molela over the last six years working in India but this was the first time I was accompanied by my daughter Rachel, a fellow artist, and it was wonderful to be able to show her the things I had learnt and introduce her to the people I had met there.
The roads from Udaipur to Molela have improved dramatically in the phenomenally fast developing pace that is very apparent in India today, and what had previously been a four hour, fraught and bumpy car trip was now a pleasant 2 hour journey winding through the small villages and we were able to absorb all the colour, joy and street life that India offers.
We arrived at the home and studio of the master potter Jamna Lal Kumhar, a potter I have had the pleasure to get to know and work with over the last few years. We were greeted by Jamnalal, his wife, two sons and one of his daughters and made welcome in their modest house and studio, which is in itself a terracotta museum with votive panels lining the courtyard, and a stockroom packed to the gunnels with figurines of gods, goddesses and various animals and birds. His studio room was a hive of activity with a visiting artist working on a 10ft panel commission for a temple..
Over a cup of chai, Jamnalal explained to Rachel that he is a 17th generation potter and retells the story that has been passed down by all his forefathers about the traditional potters in Molela and how they began to create votive offers:
“When our ancestors began [their] first artwork, the God Dharmraj came into their dreams. The first creator of this art was a blind potter. The God ordered him to make murti [sculpture]. The potter was blind and replied I cannot see so how can I make it? Then the god said I am standing behind you, just open your eyes and see the shadow of my figure. The blind potter opened his eyes and saw the shadow. Then he went to his house and began to make the murti of Dharmaj as a shadow, a relief work.”
Jamnalal explains that whilst this may be an oral tradition it is actively practised by around 40 pottery families in Morella who believe they have been ordained by Dhararaj to take up this profession of making the Murtikals (images of gods and idols of gods with terracotta) and pass to it down their family line.
We had arrived just after the busiest time of year in Monela. During magh (January and early February) many priests travel here to choose a panel or idol to take back to their village, where they can be offered to their temples as protection against disease and evil spirts, to heal ill or bring fertility. The pieces are chosen in their terracotta raw finish and then colours are chosen by the priest to be finished to order, before being taken for rituals and prayers at the local temple.
Following our chai and long chat Jamnalal took Rachel and I to visit the local temple situated on a hill overlooking the village. Whist there he showed us many of the Murtikala made by his ancestors. I was especially drawn to the large ‘mound’ of pottery which where pieces no longer used in the worshipping process, but as holy pieces nothing is destroyed or thrown away, and they remain in the temple grounds.
Each worshipper visiting the temple brings an offering to the gods – many bring a sheet of silver or gold leaf to add to a plaque or idol. Single pieces within the “mound” reflected the prayers, rituals and homage of countless generations and the passing of time in their layered textures.
From the height of the hill Jamnalal pointed out where the local potters and their forefathers had dug their clay for centuries, sadly from this vantage he was able also to point out all the new development creeping towards Molela. With great anxiety, he explained how, now that so much land was being sold, the potters where losing the right to dig clay from their land. Eerily, whilst we were there we spotted a drone patrolling the land. Something so incongruous to the temple, the village and the historical journey of knowledge and tradition that Jamalal was sharing with us. It makes me tremendously sad that this is something that will just be swallowed up in the fast progression of “progress”.
Some of the progression around Molela however was very uplifting. Jahmnalal then took us to a local school which teaches 90 local children run by one very motivated and forward thinking teacher. The school houses 2 classrooms… and a bird sanctuary! The teacher has turned the grounds into a beautiful area with a large variety of trees, all strung with a mixture of locally made terracotta and shop bought plastic birdhouses’. We were taken around by the teacher and 3 of his young students, who explained, in broken English, how the students were each responsible for a tree, and showed us how they had to draw water from the well and tend it each day. We were also told of the variety of birds that visited at different times of the day and what foods attracted them throughout the seasons.
After an eventful day we returned to Jamnalal’s home for food with the family and to watch the sun set from his roof, upon which he told us of his hopes to build to extend his 2 roomed home for his family. We were then fortunate to be invited to accompany him to a relatives wedding celebration the village. We joined the three -sister bridal possession [a true economy of scale!], each bride rode a white horse, a group of dancing joyful family and friends lead the procession, a mobile music truck followed behind and the edges of the party were framed by ladies carrying electric lanterns like walking candelabra! We were welcomed whole heartily into the celebrations, after which we returned to sleep surrounded by the terracotta gods in Jamnalal’s wonderful store room.
We left the next morning with parting gifts and blessings from Jamnalala and his family. We also left with wonderful memories of a very special place.