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DEC Onwards
Criticism & Theory
Liberalism and its Indian Afterlife
Faisal Devji
JAN Onwards
Islamic Aesthetics
In the Triangle of Samarkand
Ilker Evrim Binbaş
JAN Onwards
Islamic Aesthetics
From International Timurid to Ottoman
Gülru Necipoğlu
JAN Onwards
Islamic Aesthetics
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Yves Porter
JAN Onwards
Islamic Aesthetics
After Timur: Calligraphy and the Arts
Simon Rettig
Islamic Aesthetics
The Global Muṣḥ af: Visual Identity,
Simon Rettig
JAN Onwards
Indian Aesthetics
Thief Who Stole My Heart:
Vidya Dehejia

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Raw Unfired Clay Sculpture – Fresh Takes on Art and Materiality in Southern Asia

19 - 20 Jan '18 6.00 - 8.30 pm

Image - Ganesh by Biswajit Paul, Mumbai (Susan Bean, 2015) GP1000276

Raw clay sculpture, a millennia-old ongoing art practice, has been missing in plain sight from narratives on the region’s art – sidelined by its mundane, misunderstood material, its often ‘kitschy’ appearance, and nowadays its overwhelmingly vernacular contexts. Raw clay sculpture, in practices from the Deccan, the Himalayas, and Bengal, challenges art scholarship to consider fresh perspectives on materiality, on the vexing imbrications of art and religion, and on the construction of the region’s modern art world.

January 19
Session 1. Raw Clay Sculpture – Art and Materiality
Figural forms in raw clay have been a presence across the region for millennia, yet unfired figural sculpture has attracted little notice in the literature on art in southern Asia. This neglect is partly due to the nature of unfired, raw clay – commonplace, low value, and fragile, and also to the frequent confusion of unfired clay forms with terracottas and stuccos.
In this presentation I want to consider the particular materiality of clay in a way that opens fresh thinking about the role materials play in art practice. To understand clay, we move away from thinking about what it is to considering what it does. In the spirit of recent scholarship that is dissolving the sharp divide between living things and inert stuff, I present ordinary alluvial clay as a substance continuously coming into being, a component of soil that is dramatically unstable, liable to shift between liquid, solid, powdery or plastic conditions, according to its interactions with water, air and physical force.
From the perspective of clay’s propensities and capabilities, I sketch the foundations of the region’s practices in raw clay from prehistoric excavations, classical texts including Puranas, South Indian Agama texts, Buddhist commentaries, modern histories, and ethnographic accounts, considering how sculptors create figural forms by collaborating with clay’s active propensities – to be plastic, to support life, to readily disintegrate.

Session 2. The Career of Clay in the Deccan
This session offers a long view of raw clay sculpture in the Deccan as a means for considering how clay’s common availability, its penchant to transform between plasticity, solidity, fragmentation and liquidity, and its ability to support life have played out over millennia. Evidence from the 2nd-millennium BCE indicates how clay’s ready plasticity enabled unskilled hands to make figurines for family rituals, a practice that has remained prominent in the region. As a component of soil, clay’s life-giving power is at the heart of the legendary history of the Shaka (Śaka) era established in the 1st century CE by a potter king who achieved victory in command of an army modeled from clay and brought to life. In the 17th century Shivaji commemorated this victory and promoted his subjects’ martial spirit by exhorting boys to build miniature clay forts that were sprinkled with fast-sprouting seeds in demonstration of the generative power of clay/earth. When 17th century Maratha rulers elevated the annual Ganapati Chaturthi to a state occasion centered on the worship and immersion of a raw clay ritual image, their sculptors worked with clay’s plasticity to create images of suitable magnificence. Since the images were ritually destroyed at the close of the pujas, each season offered opportunities for sculptors to create murtis more splendid than before. Pune’s raw clay sculptors also made figures depicting court life to dazzle crowds at the annual Muharram processions. Towards the end of the 18th century sculptors began using clay for its plasticity to adapt western naturalistic realism for an increasingly diverse clientele. And at the turn of the 20th century, when Hindu activists and nationalists made Ganapati Chaturthi into a grand public festival, they took advantage of clay’s plasticity to create new iconographies for Ganesh better suited to the aims of their movement. Such examples from the Deccan demonstrate how raw clay’s capabilities have enabled professional clay modelers and their clientele, as well as unskilled makers, to achieve religious, aesthetic and political aims.

January 20th:
Session 1. Raw Clay, Modern Ocular Realism, and Early Colonial Bengal
Raw clay figural sculpture came to prominence in Bengal in the 18th century, stimulated by a surge in Shakta devotionalism led by local rulers. The Rajas of Krishnanagar became renowned for promoting annual festivals for the goddess centered on the worship and immersion of raw clay images. Clay modelers fulfilled commissions for ritual images and also for edutaining statues of characters from myth and history displayed near the main altar. Some rajas awarded sculptors for outstanding work. While ritual images were bound by iconographic requirements, edutaining figures, called shongs, granted creative leeway to sculptors and patrons. Because the ritual images were immersed and the shongs were fragile, each festive season brought new demands for distinctive work. Raw clay’s matchless plasticity facilitated subtle and dramatic innovations. As Bengal, especially Calcutta, became a center of regional and global trade, social and political upheaval, artists gained access to new techniques, materials and styles and responded to changing tastes and shifting clienteles. Drawing inspiration from Christian statuary, neoclassical monuments, and European prints and paintings in lively circulation, clay sculptors devised approaches to naturalistic, ocular realism that placed them among the vanguard transforming art practice during the century before the establishment of colonial art schools and the emergence of an elite art world.

Session 2. Raw Clay and the Formation of a Modern Artscape in India
Looking further into raw clay’s place in the emergence of India’s modern artscape, I focus on the trajectories of two sculptors trained in family workshops, Jadunath Pal (c.1840 – 1929) in Bengal and G K Mhatre (1876-1947) in Maharashtra, both raised in clay by families of clay modellers. Jadunath, a low-status Khumbhakar potter from Krishnanagar, became a leading exponent of his hometown’s well-known naturalistic realism. His own specialty was lifelike, full-size portraiture that the colonial administration exhibited as ethnographic models in international exhibitions. In Calcutta Jadunath hovered at the margin of Calcutta’s emergent Anglo-Indian art establishment, awarded at art exhibitions and sought after for neoclassical statuary to adorn mansions in north Calcutta, but never attaining the new status of ‘artist’. Mhatre, by contrast, came from a family of high-ranking Prabhus, some of whom filled positions in the colonial establishment, while others specialized in raw clay sculpture. Mhatre’s lack of interest in school work, his aptitude for clay modelling, and family links to the colonial establishment, led him to enrol at the J J School of Art. There Mhatre took his instructors by surprise producing student work that was widely hailed as India’s first fine-art sculpture. Recognized for innate genius, his roots in vernacular practice erased, Mhatre went on to pioneer civic statuary, modelling prototypes in clay for finished work in plaster, bronze and marble. While Jadunath Pal and G K Mhatre deployed their vernacular training to forge distinctively modern careers, their contrasting trajectories reflect the deepening divide between elite and vernacular art, between artist and artisan.


Susan S Bean

Dr. Susan Bean is the Chair, Center for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian
Studies, Gurugram, India, since 2014. She was the Curator, South Asian and Korean Art at the Peabody Essex Museum where she curated several path-breaking exhibitions and is a recipient of numerous grants and fellowships. Lectured widely, her numerous publications are a testimony to her wide ranging scholarship.


Registration Fees: Rs. 2000/-



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Queens Mansion, 3rd Floor, G. Talwatkar Marg,
Fort, Mumbai - 400001. India.
Tel: +91-22-2207 2974 / 2207 2975.
Fax: +91-22-2207 2976.
Email: to.jnanapravaha@gmail.com,

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