These black beauties made at Nungbi village in Manipur have a simple ethereal aesthetics that is so new-age.
By itself ‘Lori Ham' seems a rather rhythmic expression. When you learn what it means it acquires a curious edge. It has a harmony about it, connected as it is with the poetry of pottery. Lori means village and Ham stands for pottery, except it's not the regular earthenware made by potters across the country. Lori Ham specifically applies to the black pottery made at Nungbi village in the northern parts of Ukhrul district, Manipur.
Almost all villages of Manipur make their trademark pottery, each determined by its colours and designs. It's Nungbi village though that's taken the lead outside the state frontiers, and made a mark in the big world with its black earthenware crafted by the Tangkhul tribe, attracting eyeballs wherever it's been displayed. As in the other North-eastern states, Lori Ham is not shaped on the potter's wheel, but it is uniquely made with rock powder and not river clay.
Nungbi is amongst the oldest settlements of the Tangkhuls and is rich in natural resources as clay, limestone, chromites etc. While these are found in considerable measure in other parts and other lands, Nungbi village is reportedly the only place in the world rich in serpentinite, the dark grayish-black soft rock found deep down in the layers of the earth, which is the prime material used in making its famous pottery. This rock is powdered and mixed with a tempering material called leshonlung, a kind of clay found near the rock deposit. Between September and March the rock is dug out and preserved for the months ahead because once the rains arrive in the region serpentinite cannot be accessed.
The process of Lori Ham is laborious and begins with the mixing of leshonlung and serpentinite, following which it's kneaded with water till the desired consistency is achieved. In absence of the wheel, this dough is pounded until smooth and formed into a block that's further whacked into a long thick strip. A required dimension is cut out of this strip and its edges trimmed, after which begins the procedure to cast it into shape.
The method of giving shape to an item is quite rudimentary and in fact initially appears to be similar to what's done in play-school with a material like plasticine. But that is where the similarity ends as it is only deft hands, used to years of handling the earthenware mixture, who can give it an artistic finish. As an illustration, if it's an item like a tray, the thick strip is cut to dimension and its corners tapered by hand or with a basic implement like a wooden ruler. At times it's given a self-design with something as simple as a chisel. The moulding and enhancement of an item is all in the hands of a potter and creativity is limitless. The potter uses nature around in full measure, so for a cylindrical item like a mug or jug, the sheet of clay is usually wound around a bamboo that's possibly been growing around the house.
Once an item has been given a basic form it is patted further to the required thickness. On getting the final shape, the exterior surface is scraped with a bamboo strip and smoothened. The clay pieces are then left to harden and later fired for five to seven hours. It's on firing that the earthenware acquires a black metallic look.
Touch of magic
But that's not where it all ends as the finale is reserved for a little magic by the dried leaf of the chirona tree that's rubbed on the items shortly after they are out of the kiln and still warm. This process gives the pottery its lovely muted silken lusture.
It's generally believed that cooking in this pottery enhances the taste of the food as compared to other pots and pans. In the olden days pottery making was confined to being a household activity with women members being the chief creators, while the men sourced the material. With the passage of time and industrialisation, black pottery gradually got replaced by others utensils. To revive the craft, NGOs like the popular Lori Ham Entrepreneur Foundation of Nungbi Khullen village jumped into the fray and some smart marketing as well as a dash of creativity has provided the products a considerably worthy plank.
Tangkhul potters today mould an attractive range of kitchenware as well as décor items. The all-black Lori Ham, a centuries-old utilitarian craft, appears minimalist, quite in sync with new age urban demands and lends a timeless quality to it. The addition of cane to the earthenware has given it a further designer look.