The fired earthen sculpture, known as Terracotta existed from pre-Harappan times to the Gupta period spanning the subcontinent from Gandhara in the northwest to Bengal in the east and the Nilgiris in the South.
Terracotta findings go back to the Harappan civilization dominated by human-female/male, bird, cattle and toy cart figurines. The later terracotta work became interwoven with architecture with plaques depicting human, animal and divine figures of Buddhist and Brahmanical deities, dolls, horses and toys depicting Indian fables with varied themes used to educate children. One of the important factors contributing to the rapid development of the art is the use of Terracotta sculpture in architectural pieces and edifices. Bengal has a large array of fine specimens of temple terracotta panels, plaques, medallions and wall panels which distinguish temple architecture. The themes are drawn frome the epics and old legends.
Terracotta art in India always existed on two levels; that which is seemingly ageless, whose form is archetypal and that which adapts to the artistic trends that surround it. Terracotta figures are shaped in all forms in the round and in relief and baked. Terracotta is an art form universal in its scope, yet emblazoned with the distinct imprint of the native soil. Terracotta artifacts demand a very high degree of imagination, application and motivation. The polish on the final figure conceals an enormous volume of tireless work, watchful attention and forbearance.
The artist, through experience, thoroughly understands clay which varies from place to place and knows how to mix it for various purposes and proportions. Hollow terracottas are created by household cylinders and pots of various shapes being thrown on the wheel and joined together in a particular manner and made into terracotta figurines. The prominent ears of the clay elephant, for example, are just simple traditional clay lamps affixed vertically to a head. Solid terracotta figures may consist of one lump of solid clay or of several solid carefully shaped lumps, joined together.
These lumps are each formed separately and, after a little drying are joined. Partly hollow and partly solid is another type. Naturally they are all medium sized and with hollow torsos. In some cases the legs and neck are also hollow. The art of joining has played a very important role in terracotta work. The artist has to decide if the figure has to be solid or hollow or joined or if any lumps have to be added in order to shape certain parts as desired. Artists have to work out their own methods of joining the parts of their clay figures while considering how to work easily the shape of the form, from within and how to allow the air to circulate, so that it can bake well. The method of joining varies in different areas.The finishing is minimal but elegant.