How the Gods take shape

INTACH Madurai’s workshop, ‘Clay and its Iconic Status’, brought to fore the history and significance of the clay craft

Updated - February 04, 2015 09:35 pm IST

Published - February 04, 2015 06:39 pm IST

Clay play: An artisan gives finishing touches to a doll at Vilachery Photo: R.Ashok

Clay play: An artisan gives finishing touches to a doll at Vilachery Photo: R.Ashok

Potter Ramalingam holds a blob of wet clay between his fingers, gently rolling it into an ellipsoid. “This is the tummy,” he says, adding a spherical head to it. He flattens two small pieces of clay and attaches them to the sides of the sphere. Little cylindrical parts are added for the limbs and a cute round Ganesha is born out of Ramalingam’s deft hands. “This is a simple method to make Ganesha idol in flat five minutes,” he smiles. Giving a live demo of the craft, the potter from Vilachery made the audience gape in awe at INTACH’s workshop, ‘Clay and its Iconic Status’, in which students and teachers from various city schools took part.

“Though just 15 kilometres from Madurai, not many of the city people would have visited Vilachery,” notes Valli Annamalai, who spearheaded the project under the Crafts Committee of INTACH Madurai.

“It is a different world out there, where the earth is accorded much importance. People revere mud as God,” she says, “Out of the pancha-bhootas (five natural elements), earth is the easiest to feel and handle.”

The project aimed at popularising the legendary clay craft of Vilachery, is an outcome of the combined efforts of Valli Annamalai, Mathalaimani Asaikani, Reshma Zafar and Mital Lalan. The team presented many interesting facts about the craft, gathered during their visits to the village. “We were excited to meet the oldest potter Sadasivam, who introduced Golu dolls to Vilachery,” says Reshma. “Potter Sadasivam had learnt the craft from Muruga Bhattar, who set up one of the first Golu doll shops in the city, near North Tower.”

“The kuyavar or Kuzhala community were patronised by the Kings for their skills. Their upward mobility in the society began with the popularisation of the Navaratri festival. The golu tradition helped them flourish,” points out Valli.

The clay craft however is said to have originated in Andhra Pradesh. Potters at Vilachery mention that two Telugu speaking people set up a shop near Thermutti a century ago.

“Navaratri festival called ‘Bomme Goluvu’ in Telugu was an encouragement for the potters as it brought brisk business and indirectly paved way for the desilting of water bodies ahead of monsoons,” reasons out Valli. “The Tiruparankundram tank is the source of livelihood for the potters.”

Art Historian Dr.R.Venkatraman, shared a few interesting myths related to the pottery craft. “The Satavahana dynasty that ruled parts of present Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra is said to have originated from a potter,” he says. The legends goes that a potter named Satavahana had made a thousand mud horses coloured with red ochre as offerings to God. When the Arabs invaded the country with a massive cavalry, the potter prayed to God and transformed all his mud horses into real ones. Thus he won the battle with invaders and proclaimed the kingdom. “This myth conveys that mud breathes. The belief is that anything made of clay or mud is just an object or idol, but has life in it,” explains Venkatraman.

Mathalaimani talks about potter Krishnan, who specialises in making Drishti Bommais. “The potters use moulds for making the idols. For clay idols, the mould is made of Plaster-of-Paris. The moulds are mostly modelled after pictures of Gods. Papier-mâché has also crept into the village, as the products are lighter,” she says.

Mital Lalan, explains the change the craft has seen over the years, “Earlier, people engaged as families in the craft. But these days, they work as small companies and cooperatives. A lot of innovations have been made in the forms, shapes and colours of the idols.”

“Young potters even use machines for mixing clay while traditionally the clay was stomped to achieve consistency,” she adds.

To help the potters of Vilachery, INTACH has ideated few clay souvenirs that reflect Madurai. One is an idol of Meenakshi positioned atop a diya and another is an oil lamp shaped like a conch. “We have one more in the pipeline, which is a fish-shaped diya, reflecting the legendary symbol of the Pandiyas,” informs Valli.

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