One of the perks of owning an antiques store is you get to buy weird and unusual stuff. My wife Mary and I are offered things for sale almost constantly, most of which we can’t use. Neither one of us is expert in any field of antiques, we learn as we go, and that’s the real joy.
A while back a young lady came into our store with a cardboard box full of broken and grimy clay figurines. There were over fifteen in the box but when I saw their condition, my first reaction was to say no, we can’t use damaged goods. However they were strangely compelling. The young lady said she bought them at a yard sale but wanted rid of them because they were “creepy”.
They were creepy. Each one was made of unglazed clay, they were very detailed and life-like figures of what I thought were African or Asian workers or peasants. There was a snake charmer (with a snake), musicians, beggars and merchants. Each one was unique, obviously very old and not like anything I had ever seen before. Intrigued, we decided to buy them despite the condition; I put them in the basement and more or less forgot about them but every time I went by the box, I kept wondering just what the heck were they? There was no name or trademark or anything I would normally use to do a search.
We needed a real expert and the best person to ask was our friend and colleague Gay Guthrie. She quickly determined they were unfired clay statues made in India in the late 1800s. With that information in hand I was able to go to my other friend, Mr. Google, and find out more about these fascinating artifacts.
India has a long tradition of using unfired clay to make statures and figurines. Many artisans feel that firing the clay takes away its life. The Chinese also have a tradition of making tea pots from unglazed clay. They`re called “live pots” because the porous clay absorbs the tea flavour until, eventually, you can make tea just by pouring in boiling water, no tea leaves required. The main disadvantage is that this live clay is very brittle, which is why all of my figurines are broken.
These everyday figures are still being made primarily in three centres; Krishnanagar in Bengal, Luknow and in Pune (formerly spelled Poona or Poonah) near Mumbai. Today it is being lamented as a dying art; good clay is getting harder to find and it is just about impossible for an artisan, who will spend days crafting each figurine, to make a living at it. Today many are made using moulds that don’t have the intricate details; they sell for a couple of dollars each at local markets.
The tradition is said to have been started by Raja Krishna Chandra Ray, the King of Krishnanagar from 1710 to 1783. A patron of the arts and literature, he encouraged the best potters to move there. During his reign, the figures and even the artists were sent abroad to promote and teach the art. That is why they can be found all over the world, even in Orillia.
Pune and Lucknow had similar artists’ colonies, their figures were slightly different in style but all were very realistic depictions of everyday people of India. They are carefully painted and clothed, some even have real hair. Many are so detailed that it is possible they were modeled using real subjects. Often a specialist would be used to make certain items, such as a musical instrument, so it would be as authentic as possible. The best examples are entire scenes, a market for instance, with dozens of people, animals and buildings depicting Indian life the way it was 150 years ago.
When the British came, they were very impressed and even set up schools to keep the art form alive. The practice reached its peak in the late 19th century. The artists were renowned. The figurines, considered national treasures, were sent to represent India at international expositions, which were just starting up all over the western world. One of the best artists, Jadunath Pal, created a group that was sent to the Melbourne (Australia) International Exposition in 1880; it was awarded the Second Order of Merit and is now housed in the Museum Victoria.
Ironically, it was after Indian Independence that the art form went into serious decline. Without the local Kings, patronage for the arts virtually disappeared, the government is unable and unwilling to support the artists and it is no longer commercially viable for them to spend so much time and effort making and selling something few people want anymore.
Thankfully, there is at least one prominent contemporary artist, Kaushik Biswas, who is actively working to revive the form in Krishnanangar.
There are stunning examples in various museums around the world and groupings do come up for auction at Christie’s and other high-end art auction houses. Groupings in good condition can sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Unfortunately our little collection is in very poor condition so it doesn’t appear to have much monetary value.
It does have a lot of educational value and that’s just fine with us. We took a chance and bought some creepy dolls and learned a little bit more about art and history and that’s what it’s all about.