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Krishnanagar Figures: Marvels Of Clay Modeling From Bengal, India

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Indian clay figures
Attributed to Jadunath Pal
Krishnanagar, 19th century
Clay, hair, cloth
11 ¼ in. (28.6 cm.) high and under

Krishnanagar, a province of Bengal, has a long history of clay modeling which began in the mid-18th century when Maharaja Krishnachandra Roy (r. 1728–1783) established potteries in the region in order to create religious idols (Chose, 44–45). While clay figurines were traditionally limited to figures of deities from the Hindu pantheon, the Maharaja's introduction of the Hindu practice of Barwari Puja (community worship) created a large and diverse clientele for clay modeling. Clay scenes made for group worship began including figures of human attendants that served the clay gods. These human figures soon became popular on their own, encouraged by the Western demand for realistic representations of the people, plants, and animals of India (Chatterjee, 208).

The practice reached its zenith in the late 19th century, when such figurines were considered national treasures and were often sent to international exhibitions to represent India. In particular, the Pal family garnered much renown for their exceptional skill in the craft, the most famous of whom was Jadunath Pal (1821–1920). An article written for the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888 recounts that:

The figures made by [the Pal family] have acquired great celebrity, and they have repeatedly gained medals and certificates in most of the International Exhibitions held since 1851. There is considerable delicacy and fineness in their work; the figures are instinct [sic] with life and expression, and their pose and action are excellent.

(Mukharji, 59)

The writer continues that Jadunath Pal in particular had "no equal in India in this kind of work" (Mukharji, 63).

The present set, representing a variety of Indian castes, is attributed to Jadunath Pal, who often included the contributions of specialist tradesmen in his work–the clothing was made not by modelers, but by actual tailors, and if a figure was accessorized with a basket or a necklace, they often came directly from the professionals themselves, giving the figures an exceptional realism. While many of the figures are missing the implements of their trade that would once have distinguished them from one another, the delicate positioning of their bodies and their animated appearance nevertheless bring them to life. Not only were these figures once outfitted with real clothing and tools, but also with human hair. While this novel feature is now missing on a majority of the figures, the largest of the group—an elderly man with a wonderfully articulated stomach and a string of beads around his neck—still retains his original patch of hair.

See a similar group by Jadunath Pal which was exhibited at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880 and gifted to the National Gallery of Victoria by the India Commision of the Melbourne International Exhibition (acc. ST 40409-40414).

Chatterjee, S., People of Clay: Portrait Objects in the Peabody Essex Museum, Museum History Journal, 2013.
Chose, B., Traditional Arts and Crafts of West Bengal: a sociological survey, Papyrus, Calcutta, 1981.
Mukharji, T. N., Art Manufactures of India: specially compiled for the Glasgow International Exhibition, Superintendent of Government Printing, Calcutta, 1888.

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