Haku Shah: Clay and man

The eminent Gandhian artist Haku Shah who passed away recently, reflects in this article on the curious relationship between India and the art of pottery

Haku Shah (Social Media)
Haku Shah (Social Media)

Haku Shah

The word ‘mati’ means both man and clay and there is an age-old relationship between the two. In Gujarati, there are sayings which refer to this sacred relationship. If a child is born without a limb, for instance, it is said that God must have lacked that much clay. When a woman is childless, people say that God must have run short of 11/4 seers of clay.

Several Indian legends tell of instances where clay images were fashioned and life was breathed into them. The best known is the story of Ganesh. Once Shiva’s wife, Parvati was preparing for her bath. She made a figure out of the dust that she rubbed off her skin, and she breathed life into it. The boy, who later became Ganesh, kept a look for stranger while Parvati bathed.

In the same way, people in India create figurines of deities such as Gauri, Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, Mallamma the mother Goddess, Goddess Durga, the Serpent God and so on. Their size ranges from two cms to three metres. And they are made for different occasions, like Gouri Vrata, Krishnashtami, Shivaratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja and marriages. All these Gods, whether they are made from clay, wood, stone, bronze and silver or gold, have to be given ‘pranapratistha’, breathing life into an idol. The idol is bathed, clothed and fed; lamps are lit and hymns are chanted.

0 King, thy power is the giver of life and strength unto us; the giver of resources for the removal of affliction; the giver of knowledge, the helper of studying all sciences; the preacher of true religion and service of the learned. May thy weapons trouble others rather than us. Be thou our purifier and shower blessings on us!

Vaisvanara, Vitihatra and Dhananjaya - These forms of agni the fire god (are invoked) in order to takeout the image (safely from the kiln) and for the purification of the image.

Maitravaruna has laid down (the ritual of) installing images of all gods. I install you in the mandala along with other gods. This is how prana, jiva or life is given to the figure. With the same devotion, depending on the occasion, the figurines are worshipped for a period of time. As Hansubai from Kutch says of her clay Krishna, “We women dress Kanudo in our beautiful ornaments and on his birthday we dance with him through the night.”

This shows the oneness that the villagers share with their deity made of plain. unbaked clay. The concluding ritual is called Utthapan, when the figurines are immersed in water, meeting Mother Earth again.

In addition to utensils and figures of gods and goddesses, potters in India make many other terracotta objects such as horses, elephants, tigers, bulls, camels, houses, cowherds, men with musical instruments, figures of mother and child, men and women. They even make different parts of the human body - eyes, ears, hands, navels, balls (to represent the male genitals), breasts, feet and ankles. Worms are also made to offer to the gods.

The Chaudhari, Gamit and Bhil tribals offer terracotta figures to appease the gods - a clay leg to heal their leg, a clay hand if their own hand is hurt, an eye for their own injured eye. Sometimes, they offer a whole human figure to the God to make someone physically whole again.

For pains, which are not specific to a particular part of the body, they have conceived their own ways of symbolising the affliction. To cure a fainting spell, a star-shaped disc is offered and for cramps in the stomach, they offer a round ball. To ward off evil spirits, a clenched fist is proffered.

Usually, potters make all these objects but it is interesting to know that sometimes the tribals also make unbaked human-like figurines using ordinary clay and clay from ant-hills. The priest transfers the disease from the afflicted person onto these clay figures which represent evil spirits. At times, among their several unbaked objects, the tribals include one or two baked terracottas made by the potter.

All over India, clay has been used in an extraordinary variety of ways. The simple huts of the Santhals in Bengal use off-white and yellow clay plaster; the Rathwas in Gujarat install their God in a painting on the wall; the huts of the villages near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan have white walls, niches and windows; the large, sculptural, thick-walled huts in Punjab and the walls of the Madhubani huts in Bihar have paintings of gods and goddesses. Everywhere one finds the rich culture of clay.

In clay huts the circulation of air and transfer of heat are kept in balance. In Kutch, the clay walls are covered with relief work in intricate designs and embedded with small pieces of mica mirrors, almost transforming the humble but into a splendid mansion. A wall made out of clay is not lifeless. One of the tribals describes his wall on which is painted the God Pithora. He says, “It is not just a wall, it is a living being. As the wind creaks through the wall at midnight, I can hear the hoofbeats of the horses in the procession of Pithora Baysi.”

A variety of roof tiles are made in different areas, either by the villager or the potter. Some are flat, some are half-cylinders and at times animal and bird figures are added. Making the floor of a but which consists of many layers is an art. Each layer is made of a different mixture of clay, cowdung, wisps of grass, husk and other material. With the palm and fingers, villagers make fan-like designs on. the floor using a combination of quarter, half and three-quarter circles.

Jars become one of the main ornaments of a hut. At times they are made in the area of the but even before the walls are built. They also serve as partitions or the main wall. These jars are usually enormous - between ten and twelve feet high - and one has to use a ladder to reach them. Grain is stored in the large ones, while the small jars, as tiny as ten inches high, are used to store seeds. In the sizes in between, milk, bread, and curds are kept. These jars keep food cool in summer and her in winter.

The forms of the jars differ from area to area and even within one area there are individual differences. Sometimes, the lower portion is created using an old clay pot as a mould. Long clay ropes are coiled on top of it to raise the height by six inches or so, then it is left to dry for a day. In this way, the jar is built up and the coils are gradually tapered till, at least, a small mouth is formed at the top. This is covered with a lid made separately out of cowdung and clay. The jar has legs and in between the legs is a hole or ‘eye’ as it is also called, through which grain is removed. The form of the jar symbolically represents a woman’s figure. After the grain is removed, the hole is sealed with a small rag and then cowdung and clay is applied, so no insects or rats can enter. Thus, jars are one of the best storage containers in India. In fact, they have also been used as hiding places for revolutionaries and outlaws I.

Jars have many forms - they have single, twin, triple and even five compartments for different grains. They are decorated with relief figures of the sun and moon.

Different colours- yellow, red, ochre, and white are applied. Mirrors and mica are used as embellishments. In Kutch,the jars are like chests and are full of relief figures. On top, a triangular form is made to represent Krishna. In certain parts of the country jars are even worshipped.

Yet no museum has these jars. They may have one that is 5000 years old, but a jar made yesterday is not there. the procession of Pithora Baysi.”

Sometimes, they say that unbaked objects do not last long. But, when I asked one tribal about the age of his jar, he said, “We have had this one for three generations”.

Besides jars, many different kinds of clay stoves can be found all over India. Each woman knows how to make one. The size and proportions of its parts, preservation of heat, number of openings, air-flow, the embellishments of the stove - everything she does with ease. She also knows the precise way in which the fuel has to be fed and the pots have to be arranged on the stove. Each day, she has to coat it with cowdung 20 and clay, or water to make it fresh for the next day.

Pouring water into the stove to extinguish it is taboo. In India, the fireplace is the holy part of the home.

A number of toys are made from unbaked clay- horses, elephants, mother and child, lamps, mirrors, cradles, cots, sparrows, grindstones and many more. Whistles and drums are also created out of clay and they make a variety of sounds. Sometimes, these toys are baked too. Children love these brightly coloured toys, they love the touch, the colour, the sound. I have heard the hawkers call out, “Ghana, Ghoda Lyo” ghantt, the grindstone for girls, ghoda, the horse for boys, to both are happy. They play with these toys, break them, try to rebuild them and enjoy it all.


India has more than a million potters. They may rank low in the caste hierarchy, but to find the cleanest house in a village, one has to go to the potter’s! He always has a mild personality, knows his job perfectly and serves each house of the village, working day and night.

The potter has to respect the clay, the wind and water, the sun, the fire and the space. He has to know them well. The whole profession depends on them. A little more or a little less wind can ruin the pot. He cannot go far to look for his materials, he has to use what he finds nearby. That is the rivers, ponds, mountains and plains have wielded a great influence on terracottas. A potter uses this clay for his work and one can see what a wealth we have in the different kinds of clay. Manipur clay is sticky and black, Kutch clay is grey and soft. In South India, clay looks like bronze and has great strength. The clay is in different colours too - off-white, bright white, shades of yellow, red, brown and grey, and a range of blacks.

The ‘Kumhar’, potter, is also called ‘Prajapati’, lord of the people and ‘Visvakarma’, creator of the world. Kabir says, “Eka hi Matiya, ek kumbhara, ek sabhi ka sirijanh Ek chaak, sabh chitra banaya, naad bind ke mad! samaya”. “One pot, one potter, and one who is the creator the universe one wheel which has created sculptures and one point in the centre where the core dwells.”

The potters plays an indispensible role in the life of people. Sometimes, there is one potter in the village sometimes there is a street full of them - some fifteen twenty families. Most potters are Hindus, though some are Muslims too. In the olden days, the `gay system existed, where a potter served some particular homes only. He would make water pots, pots butter milk, clay dishes to make ‘rotla’, bread, and so on. On festivals like Diwali he would make lamps toys. In return for all these services, the potter received clothes, grain, money and after his death, son continued serving those particular families. Times have changed and the `garas’ system is dying out. even now, in large areas of India, clay utensils are u in houses and for them potters make a large variety of jars, dishes and containers. In fact, in South India, they even make a pot for the dog.

No marriage ceremony is compete without the worship of the potter’s wheel. In Bihar, they make five handprints of rice-paste on the potter’s wheel at the time of marriage. There are pots for the “mandap”, the canopy under which the wedding is performed. During pregnancy, a pot is needed; pots are used during death ceremonies and are symbolic of the family’s ancestors too.

Oh! how pervasive is the pot Where there is butter milk, in the cupboard, a pot

Where water is stored, at the waterstand, a pot

Where food is kept, on the stove, a pot In the heart of the home, as gotraj, ancestors, a pot

Where there is jaggery in the attic, a pot

During Vastu, house warming , at the threshold, a pot Where a marriage pandal is built, a pot

When the garba dance takes place, in the courtyard, a pot

During sicknes, left in the outskirts of the village, a pot

At every camp in a pilgrimage, a pot In death, at the cremation ground, a pot

At Yagna representing the planets, a pot

In a village square, the singer plays a beat, on a pot

(Haku Shah was a Gandhian and an eminent Indian painter belonging to the Baroda School. He was an author of international repute on folk and tribal art and culture. A Padma Shri awardee, He died on March 21, 2019)

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.