Summer Catalogue 2019 Published, Ancient Indian Terracottas

John Siudmak Asian Art has produced their Catalogue for Summer 2019, the eighth in the series, focussing on Ancient Indian Terracottas.

This is the second part of my on-line catalogue.

Ancient Indian terracotta sculpture from the Mauryan through the Sunga and Kushan periods was produced in a number of centres in north India, such as Taxila, Sugh in Haryana, Mathura, Kaushambi, near Allahabad, Ahichchhatra, near Bareilly, Rajghat in Benares and Chandraketugarh in Bengal to mention a few. Many observers have commented on the utilitarian function of the art form, being small and portable, and cheap to produce.

The most important subject is the representation of the goddess in her various forms revered in South and West Asiatic culture, who carries symbols of fertility mostly involving the lotus.

They are greatly varied in technique and quality, and a basic distinction must be made between work that is hand modelled, usually in the round, and that which is pressed from a mould. In some examples both techniques go together.

This is the case with the first four sculptures from Buxar, dating from the Mauryan period. They are distinquished by their bold individual treatment with applied massive coiffure consisting of two bunches of hair either as cross-bands or one on top the other, overlaid by an angled or transverse fillet. The ear-rings and necklace and breasts are in turn equally over-sized. However, the distinctive facial features are par for this school, notably the prominent nose, while the rest of the face appears eroded as if covered by a wet cloth or a clinging veil. The heavy modelling is inherently unstable with narrow waist and neck, which is why the head or bust have become separated from their bodies, the other reason being the fragile nature of the medium. All of the Buxar terracotta sculptures in this catalogue probably incorporated stool with their normal legs, Cf. Shere’s catalogue (1961) Terracotta Figurines in Patna Museum, plates nos. 1and 2, which preserves most of their original form, and allows them to stand independently. However, none of the Buxar examples survives intact. In the late 1980s a great number of terracotta plaques, mostly fragmentary, came on the international art market. They are notable for their fine quality and wide range of design and correspondence in style to those discovered during excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India in the 24 Parganas district of Bengal, especially Chandraketugarh, and by numerous surface finds in the district. Many are displayed in the Ashutosh Museum, Kolkata, and many are in the possession of the State Archaeological Department of Bengal. Produced from moulds, they have a crisp biscuit-like quality. The finest example in the medium is the famous yakshi in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, that was found in neighbouring Tamluk, ancient Tamralipti. Other high-quality fragments are displayed in the small museum there. Most of the terracotta sculptures shown in this catalogue are produced in relief from flat moulds, and vary in fineness.

The market for terracotta plaques was sadly undermined by the appearance of fake examples that began to come on the market from the early 1990’s. They typically consist of large brick-like tiles, which contain improbable scenes. The fake plaques are densely populated with single or group scenes that have no function, but to avoid interaction. Many give the impression of having been carved with a bladed instrument. This technique is employed by the fake makers in the production of small vessels which have an overall design and a thin wall. A genuine example from Chandraketugarh only has a thick collar of design around the shoulder, with a repeating vegetal and figural design.

John Siudmak
June 2019

John Siudmak
Summer 2019

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