Panchmura – Kingdom of Terracotta

Hello Guys 🙂

Hope the New Year is treating you well and a lot of travel and good food is on the cards. It was a great start for us as we were traveling on the New Year’s Eve and the first day of the year too. And if that means that we get to travel the entire year that would be blissful!

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With our passion for art, we happen to dig out places connected to art, and after this newest experience we truly believe the quote ” The earth without art is just eh”. This blog post is all about the art lying inside the earth.

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Is there anyone who has not heard of terracotta? Even if not in detail, at least travel bugs must be aware of the massive terracotta army in China. But we are not going to discuss that here. This is about a small hamlet comprising around 70 odd families in the state of West Bengal, India, named as Panchmura. And it is the one of the places of our New Year Eve’s journey.

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A visit to Panchmura was a part of our Bishnupur trip on the extended New Year weekend. Surprisingly, we noticed a lack of interest amongst tourists to actually visit the place and not only that, the locals at Bishnupur do not suggest a visit either as they find it boring and not worth. And that intrigued us more.

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We were on the road after the touristy sightseeing in Bishnupur and our driver agreed to show us two villages, Panchmura and Bikna (famous for Dokra art).

Located around 23 kms from Bishnupur (and 160 kms from Kolkata) in the Bankura district, Panchmura is the hub of terracotta artisans. The famous terracotta Bankura horse, which is adorned worldwide as a symbol of Indian folk-art, is produced in Panchmura. The structure of the ‘Bankura Horse’ symbolizes devotion, courage, history and the legacy of Mallabhum and the undefeated world of Malla kings. 

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At the first look, Panchmura also looks like any other Indian village but once you get out of the car and enter in, each and every house looks like a hub of terracotta products.

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The artists extend a very warm welcome to their visitors, in-hesitantly let you in their homes, confidently explain the process and let you click pictures, as many as you would want to. With a literacy rate of above 75%, the people here understand the art of hospitality too and even halt their work in between to explain the visitors.

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The respect they show towards visitors is beyond words and don’t worry, they do not expect you to buy anything in return for all of it. But we prefer buying things from such authentic places for gifts and our personal collections.

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Generations have lived by practicing this form of art, which is now learning to cope up with the changing demands of the new society. On the one side, we met the oldest living artist, Pashupati Kumbhakar, who is 85 years of age and has left practice because of losing vision and trembling hands and on the other hand we met the youngest one, Sayan Kumbhakar, a 12-year-old boy studying in the 6th standard and trying his hands on the art during his vacations by helping his father and learning the techniques himself.

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One amazing fact about the village is that all the families have a same surname ‘Kumbhakar’, which actually means a ‘Potter’ in English.

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We were amazed at the number of awards a few artists have received and how well they are exposed to the outer world, but have still chosen to stay back and preserve the heritage of the place and pass on the skill to the newer generations. At the same time what worries them, is that a large part of the new generation is not interested in taking up the craft for living.

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Terracotta has been a complete manual process for ages and the artists here still follow the same. Their processes are not technically controlled but manually monitored with experience. Artists in the village are registered with the cooperatives in the village and get their clay from the common cooperative fields as per their share. The unity of the artists is worth a mention as 4-5 artists share a furnace for firing their articles on a rotation basis.

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This beautiful craft is not only a male driven process. The women in the village are not only homemakers, but also extend equal support to their spouses. They are well versed with the entire process and help in each and every step from refining and mixing the clay to operating the furnace.

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Our learning of the process:

Terracotta means ‘baked earth’ in Italian and is usually reddish or brown in colour. Archaeological findings suggest that, terracotta art dates back to Indus Valley civilization.  Back then; it was mainly used to create cooking vessels and tiles to decorate temple walls.

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Reusable mould-making methods and easier and swifter process for crafting the finished work with much lower material costs are the reasons of its popularity over metal or stone. The artists mainly use fingers for shaping along with limited modeling tools like knife. Terracotta is a flexible form of art and it is easier to achieve fine details. The detailed bricks are now being used in houses, convention centers and home temples for decorating walls, floors and ceilings.

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The making process involves different stages such as clay refining and mixing, throwing on the wheel/moulding, drying and firing.

Clay Refining and Mixing
First stage involves removing all the impurities from the clay, which is done manually using fine nets to filter the dry clay. Once done, the clay is mixed with water to prepare the dough by stamping and crushing. This step requires a lot of precision as a little mistake might damage the entire lot while the firing process.

Throwing Process/Moulding
After refining and mixing, it is time to create shapes. The throwing process is done on the potter’s wheel, where the clay is converted into the desired form. Different parts of the object are turned separately and then joined together later. This is done for pots, bowls, vessels etc.

IMG_Tt25859Moulding is used for creating architectural tiles and embellishments. The clay is firmly pressed into the moulds to take the shape. Artists also register their moulds as usually the differences in similar designs are very minimal.

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Smoothening and motifs are done using fingers and various tools like knife, wet cloth etc.

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Drying
The object is allowed to dry in the sun for a limited period of 2-3 days as excess drying would make the product too tough and prone to breakage.

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Firing the Clay objects
Firing of the dried objects is done in a traditional open furnace known as ‘bhatti’ in the local language. The articles are piled on the furnace and covered with local materials like leaves, wood etc. The kiln is covered with mud and fired to produce a very high temperature.

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Two colours could be obtained after firing – ‘red’ by letting the smoke out of the vents and ‘black’ by covering the vents completely. The vents are also used to see the control the fire and see the ongoing process.

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Furnace is operated at very high temperatures, which makes it extremely difficult for the artists to work in summers as Panchmura experiences very hot summers, while winters are comparatively pleasant. Pieces also get damaged in the firing process, which are segregated from the good ones later.

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Glazing and colouring is also used in the products.

Terracotta art is practised in many other parts of India like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu and a lot of other articles like jewellery, decorative items, traditional toys and gift items are being made.

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Department of Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises & Textiles, Government of West Bengal in collaboration with UNESCO has developed Rural Craft Hub in Panchmura. They are also helping the artisans reach a wider audience by its ‘Biswa Bangla’ initiative in various ways. Products are beautifully packaged and sold through Biswa Bangla stores, which caters to both national and international audience and exposes them to craft by also providing details of the artists and the time taken to craft the article. Handicraft fairs are also organized in various parts of the country, where the artisans are invited to sell their products.

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Also, the artists organize a Terracotta festival in November every year in Panchmura, where they display their artworks and organize workshops for people interested in learning the craft.

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Panchmura can be easily reached via car and we would surely recommend a visit to anyone who is even slightly interested in folk-art. A car ride to Panchmura and Bikna from Bishnupur and back would set you back by Rs. 1500/- only.

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Tip – It is suggested to visit in the morning hours to witness the full process.

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5 thoughts on “Panchmura – Kingdom of Terracotta

Add yours

  1. Hi Priyam and Aniket, it’s wonderful to see how closely you interacted with the artists. The young folks are taking up the craft too, which hopefully will keep the tradition alive!
    You can submit reviews of the travel experience, especially of the villages and railway stations enroute on https://localfeedback.org/submit-a-review/
    In an effort to make them better, my website is collecting feedback on Indian Railway Stations through a detailed survey. Your feedback will go a long way in helping us know what can be improved. Please do share with friends and other fellow travelers so we can get maximum responses for effective feedback!
    I’ve heard there are villages in WB with even terracotta temples… will see them when i visit next! Since you both like art, you may find this website interesting http://www.ishankhosla.com/ He’s a designer who like to incorporate village art in graphic design!
    – Susmita from Local Feedback
    http://www.TheVocaLocal.com

    Liked by 1 person

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