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Evolution of Clay: Art and Culture NCERT Notes for UPSC

Jan 19, 2023


The art of pottery is probably as old as human history. No other art traces the story of human beings on this earth as clearly as pottery does. It can be justified by the following facts:

  • Clay is found in abundance in all parts of the world.
  • Clay objects are the least perishable of all materials.

Read further to know more about Evolution of Clay, Art of Pottery, Clay and other crucial topics to elevate your UPSC preparation


Clay is essentially silica but the varying mineral content in clay adds to its colour and determines its suitability for different processes.

  • In India, different types of clay are found along riverbeds and banks, lakes and ponds, and agricultural lands.
  • When clay is mixed with water it becomes malleable and elastic. By controlling the amount of water, it can be used in different ways:
  • It can be made into a creamy compound that can be poured into moulds and allowed to set. 
  • It can be mixed to a leathery consistency and cut like a sponge. 
  • Dry surface can be scraped off as fine powder.
  • Straw and grass can be added to create a strong, rough texture which is ideal for the creation of very large images.


  • As soon as the clay object is dried or fired, a chemical change occurs making object rigid.
  • Artists have used clay to produce objects for the home - cooking pots, roof tiles, clay bricks and sculptures.
  • Clay objects are prepared using two basic techniques
  • Wheel-turned pottery 
  • Hand modelling

Wheel-turned Pottery

  • There are many kinds of wheels used in India:
  • Flat stone or wooden disc: The flat stone or wooden disc is turned with the hand or a stick. 
  • Change shape of clay: It is done by placing a soft lump of clay on the centre of the disc and turning the wheel.
  • Different sizes and shapes: Pot of different sizes and shapes are created by varying the pressure of the fingers and palms she/he can create a. 
  • Hollow Shape: It is achieved by pushing thumbs down into the centre of the ball of clay and pulling gently outward and upward.
  • Double Disc: A wheel is mounted on a vertical shaft. By extending the shaft and adding another disc at the bottom it is possible to turn the wheel with the feet, leaving both hands free to make the pot. 
  • Motorized wheels: These have started to become popular nowadays.

Also Read: Craft Heritage of India

Crafting Metals: Art and Culture NCERT Notes for UPSC

Hand Modelling

Modelling is done with materials like clay, wax, or plaster. Clay modelling enables the artist to work from the inside core to the outside. Clay can be rolled, coiled, pinched, and attached to the main form.

  • This technique is used to create a sculpture.
  • The process gives the artist freedom to change, modify and repair areas at will. For example,
  • If the nose of the figure falls off, the artist can just wet the clay piece and stick it back on to the face. 
  • Artist can later add smaller details of hair, bangles, and necklaces in clay.
  • Decoration: Clay can be used to create textures and designs on the wet surface of pots, which can be pressed or imprinted, cut out or added on like appliqué and then many parts of the clay object can be assembled to forge a cohesive whole.
Hand modelling- Evolution of Clay: Art and Culture NCERT Notes for UPSC
  • Painting: After firing, the craftsperson can pour a slip, which is the thin liquid solution of clay that gives the clay object an even colour. The sculpture can be painted with mineral colours to add value to its appearance. 


Once the clay object is made, it can be dried in the sun and fired in a local kiln made of cow-dung and wood. This process transforms the clay into terracotta, making it insoluble, un-plastic and durable.

  • Clay can be fired at different temperatures from 700–1400 degrees Celsius. 
  • The intensity of heat and the type of firing gives the terracotta its colour and hue that range from dark brown to lively reds. 
  • On firing, the clay loses its chemically combined water, and becomes hard and almost imperishable. 
  • This has made the 5000-year-old seals from the Harappan Civilization to still exist.

Making of Giant figures

To make giant figures, artists have evolved various techniques. One of them is to make each piece of the figure on the potter’s wheel. This is to prevent the clay figurine from breaking when it is fired in the kiln.

  • When clay is fired, it contracts considerably owing to the loss of water and moisture. 
  • A solid model made of ordinary clay would burst under the pressure of the heat of the kiln. 
  • Making walls of even thickness is a unique way of overcoming this problem.
  • The potter throws clay to create the hollow shapes of legs, body, and neck of the figure. 
  • These individual pieces are then assembled by the potter to create the required form. 
  • The four pot-shaped legs are attached to the hollow torso. To this the artist adds bits of pinched, pressed, and coiled clay for decoration. 
  • Some of these votive figures can be two metres high and their towering presence only adds to the genius of the village potter.

Clay through the Ages

  • 3000-1500 BCE (Harappan Civilization): Small figures of animals, domesticated animals like the bull and the ram, tiny images of house animals like a bird in a cage, cats, lively Indian squirrels munching on a juicy nut, and clay toys have been found.

Harappan clay work
  • 300-100 BCE (Maurya and Sunga Periods): Clay figurines from excavations at Pataliputra, the ancient Mauryan capital, Kosambi, Gaya and other important sites of the Mauryan and Gupta Periods are found.
  • 100 BCE-300 CE (Kushan Period): In the northwestern region of India, the Greco-Buddhist stupas were often decorated with stucco designs and motifs
  • There are several Gandharan heads with evidence of paint. 
  • Strong red mineral colours were used for the lips and black charcoal hues for matted locks and curly hair.
  • 300-1000 (Gupta and Post Gupta Periods): Life-size terracotta sculptures were used to decorate temples and secular buildings.
  • 1600-1800: Local rulers of Bishnupur in West Bengal built temples in a unique style that were profusely decorated with terracotta plaques and stucco patterns
  • 1900-2000: Every village, town and city in India has a vibrant living tradition of pottery that is unique to its tradition.

Giant Clay Figures of India

  • Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh:
  • In Bastar, on amavasya (the no moon night) of Bhadrapad (August to September), tribals offer terracotta bulls, tigers, elephants, and horses to the goddess for wealth, health, and protection from evil spirits. 
  • These clay animal gifts have replaced the practice of animal sacrifices.
  • Tamil Nadu: The dramatic larger-than-life size image of Aiyanar, the local deity, is surrounded by a sea of attendants, horses, and bulls. They serve as gram devatas who stand at the entrance of the village and protect it.
Aiyanar Horse
  • West Bengal: During Durga Puja, enormous figures of the Goddess are created. Ornately decorated clay horses, huge armies of terracotta figures and assemblies of village deities with their attendants can be seen under the trees in villages.

Clay figurine, West Bengal

Interesting Point

  • The history of pottery talks about the daily life of human beings, their death and burial, of human migration, trade and conquest, cultural practices, and influences.

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