‘Mitti’ (earth) is a word that invokes a multitude of emotions, especially in the Indian subcontinent. It invokes – pride. Pride for breaking free from the shackles of oppressive colonialist regimes. It can also inspire a sense of belonging that cuts across other intersections like religion, caste, regional loyalty, etc.
Earth is an element that is so interwoven with India’s culture, economy and psyche, that no discussion about India and its culture will be complete without the word ‘mitti’. Mitti is the source of not just sustenance but the livelihood of many people in India. India’s agricultural sector accounts for about 18% of its GDP. ‘Mitti’ can also inspire feelings of nostalgia. The sight of steaming ‘chai’ in earthen cups takes many of us Bengalis back to the days of college, of arguing over the finer points of Marxism at Coffee House. Earth is also the main ingredient used to make Durga ‘murtis’ for Durgotsav. So our association with ‘mitti’ is an interesting intersection of economic, sentimental, and spiritual interests.
Mitti can also be an art connoisseur’s pride and joy. Indian earthenware has been a part of desi households and cultural heritage since time immemorial. Before refrigerators became a common fixture in Indian homes, water used to be stored in clay matkas. Earthen flower pots are still a must-have for garden lovers.
Clay lamps or ‘diyas’ are still a must-have item during every festive occasion, especially during Diwali. However Indian earthenware is not limited just to pots, matkas, glasses, and diyas. Today let us explore just a few more examples of ‘mitti’ products that have shaped the cultural legacy of India.
The Bankura Horse
These pretty clay horses are pretty much a common sight at various melas (fairs) and households in West Bengal. Available in various sizes, these horses are very popular as home decor in Bengal. Noted for their simple rustic beauty, these horses are often worshipped as Dharmatahkur’s Bahan ( companion) and symbolically sacrificed at local places of worship called ‘thans’. They first originated from the Panchmura village of Bankura district, West Bengal. These russet-colored clay horses may be simplistic to look at, but they do bring a one-of-a-kind authentic charm of rural Bengal to your boudoir.
The Pratima of Kumartuli
Every year Devi Durga is brought to life by the artisans of Kumartuli. Located in North Kolkata, Kumartuli is the 300-year-old colony of some of the finest potters of West Bengal. This is where MahishashurMardini comes to life every year under the skillful fingers of these master craftsmen. The ‘pratima’ or idol is constructed from the rich clay of the Hooghly basin. Then the idols are either decorated with ornaments created from ‘sholapith’ (white spongy plant extract) or in more flashy gold or silver ornaments.
Khavda Pottery from Gujarat
No trip to Gujarat is complete unless you buy one or two Khavda pottery. This one-of-a-kind Indian earthenware is known for being a direct descendant of the Indus Valley pottery tradition! This pottery is created using a special type of clay known as ‘ Rann ki mitti’ which is only found at Bhuj. The pottery is thoroughly fired till they are baked nicely, then coated with a fine wash of local soil known as ‘geru’. This lends a robust color to the pottery. Then the pottery is decorated with clay-based paint in red, black, and white colors.
Rajasthan’s Molela Murtikala
These terracotta idols will remind you of the sculptures seen at Khajuraho Temple. Originating at the quaint Molela village of Rajasthan. Votive terracotta idols are installed on flat surfaces like tiles or plaques. These hollow relief plaques with figurines have an old-world charm about them.
With the advent of technology, the pottery industry of India has been severely affected. Indian earthenware is now facing stiff competition from steel, glass, and ceramic products. As the demand for Indian earthenware gets depleted as more and more people opt for mass-produced alternatives, most of which are replicas of each other, the artisans who have dedicated their skills, talents, and lifetime in creating art out of clay, are now on the brink of losing their livelihoods and identity.
Pottery and regional handicrafts remain an integral part of our cultural legacy. So it is our responsibility to preserve it and cherish it. The best way we can do that is to make way for a touch of mitti in our home.