Frame by Frame

In clay, a passage to India

This sculptural rendering of a bazaar in Calcutta was made of unfired clay in the late 19th century in India. This sculptural rendering of a bazaar in Calcutta was made of unfired clay in the late 19th century in India. (Peabody Essex Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 14, 2010

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SALEM — Even in the delightfully dizzying art bazaar that is the Peabody Essex Museum, this highly detailed sculptural rendering of a bazaar in Calcutta leaps out at you. It has everything, from an assortment of fresh fish for sale to a visiting Chinese man. You can find a stall selling fruit, another selling spices, a dwarf, a dog, and some monkeys.

The attention to detail is extraordinary. Hanging out with the monkeys on the thatched roof, for instance, is a smattering of pigeons. One monkey nonchalantly peels a banana.

It’s almost too much. But this piece, which was made in the late 19th century in Krishnanagar, 50 miles north of Calcutta, is weirdly mesmerizing.

Unfired clay is an ephemeral material. Its fragility, unfortunately, is one of the reasons it hasn’t been esteemed and studied as much as it might have. But as Peabody Essex Museum curator Susan Bean has pointed out, some in India maintain that firing clay kills the life in it, ridding it of the sacred power of water.

No surprise, then, that unfired clay has long been used for devotional sculptures for festivals, temples, and wealthy patrons. The practice is sustained by a long tradition in India and particularly in the area around Krishnanagar, where families of artists pass on their skills through the generations and vie with one another for lucrative commissions.

The positive flipside of the medium’s fragility is its tremendous vitality. And this re-creation of a teeming market is a perfect example. It adopts Western style conventions of naturalism to create a scene deliberately intended to appeal to an international audience. In fact, it was probably commissioned for one of the World’s Fairs that were enjoying a golden age toward the end of the 19th century.

It may remind Western eyes of the kitsch of Christmas nativity scenes. But it also recalls similarly bustling models made by the ancient Egyptians and, indeed, the Chinese.

Of course, the really extraordinary thing here is the naturalism. Everything is fastidiously painted in carefully chosen colors — the fish, for instance, are all different species with different markings — and the figures’ hair is threads of jute.

One thinks of the refinement of Madame Tussauds’s wax models, or of the hyper-real sculptures by contemporary artists such as Ron Mueck or Duane Hanson. But this is clay, not wax, and the primal connections between clay and human flesh are somehow still in evidence beneath all the dizzying detail, giving this scene a life that is all its own.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


Attributed to: Rakhal Das Pal At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem. 978-745-9500.