What would Pongal be without the potter? A visit to their village in Sundararajanpatti

Sundararajanpatti near Kidaripatti, a nondescript hamlet 7 km east of Alagarkoil on the Melur Road, bustles with life as potters work overtime for the upcoming Pongal festival. The village has a closely-knit community of potters who have settled here since generations, with every member of the family involved in the craft — and Pongal is a festival they look forward to.

The harvest festival is celebrated to thank the Sun god for his benevolence. On this day, families gather in front of their homes, invoke the god and cook pongal in clay pots. Preparing pongal in new earthenware is an integral part of the festival. “People in rural areas cook four different pongals: Samy Pongal, Veettu Pongal, Maatu Pongal and Kidai Pongal. They are all cooked in clay pots,” says Solaisamy, a potter who has been in the profession from the age of 10.

Also during Pongal, parents gift clay pots their newly-married daughters. Clay pots of different sizes, numbering around 21 or 51, are given. “It is a ritual, faithfully followed in these parts. Not only pots but also lids are given,” says Veerammal, his wife.

From raw clay to finished product, the making of clay pots is a long process which starts from selection of clay, seasoning, wedging, making, trimming, painting and burning the pots in the kilns. “We collect clay from the Kidaripatti, Therkundam and Palkattan village tanks and dry the clay before dumping it in water tub to remove dust particles. After five to six hours, we collect the slush settled at the bottom and dry it again,” explains Solaisamy.

The clay is ready now but before making pots, it has to be seasoned. Air bubbles trapped in the clay can expand when the clay is exposed to heat, which can even cause an explosion. So the bubbles are removed and the clay mixed properly for uniform consistency. The kneading continues till the clay becomes soft in texture and wetness and turns into a smooth ball. Once the clay is wedged the ball is put on the manually-driven potter's wheel.

The bottomless pots are then dried. The potter flattens the base using wooden and granite tools. The pots are then painted in red ochre and burnt in kilns for a finished product. These pots are chemical resistant and can withstand a wide range of temperatures from very cold to very hot.

There are also different names for the different sizes of the clay pots. ‘Saal paanai' is a big pot used to carry and store water at traditional households. ‘Sothu paanai' is a pot in which rice is cooked. ‘Arasaani paanai' also called ‘Adukku paanai' is a set of pots neatly stacked one upon the other. They are usually displayed in weddings. ‘Uri paanai' is used to store butter, ‘Kalayam' is used for storing palm toddy. ‘Aanai chatti' is for preparing different gravy. ‘Kuvalai' is a clay pot used for lamps. Goldsmiths use ‘Umilodu' pot in which they fill paddy husks and use it for their profession. There is also a separate pot for ‘mulaipaari' (a pot in which sprouts are grown) function, which is also done during the festival.

More than 15 families are involved in this profession in this village. People from several places including Devakottai, Karaikudi, Sivagangai, Tiruppattur, Melur, Madurai, Dindigul, are their customers.

All said and done, the practice of cooking pongal in clay pots is vanishing fast, as already people living in urban areas have discontinued this practice and have preferred the convenience of cooking in pressure cookers. The practice is fast catching up in rural areas also with the generation next, exposed to the comforts of city life, choosing pressure cookers over clay pots.

COLOURS OF CLAY: The finished clay pots are given a big face lift here with attractive colour paintings. It looks colourful with depictions of sugarcane, lamps and green leaf festoons. In Arappalayam alone, where these decorated clay pots are sold, more than 100 families are involved in this painting profession. “We use both oil painting and water colours for this. It all boils down to money. Pots with oil painting cost more than those with water-colour. But oil painting lasts for years,” says S. Saraswathi, a seller.

The cost ranges between Rs.60 for ordinary pot, Rs.130 for a pot with oil painting and Rs. 80 to Rs.100 for pot with water colour.

These people are also potters but changed their profession due to societal compulsions. “We had kilns in this place long back. But as people started settling around this place they started objecting to our kilns citing pollution. Hence, we had to change our profession. Now we only buy and sell pots,” she says.

OF DIFFERENT HUES: Apart from the sugarcane, pongal and jallikattu, the next big thing that greets people are the colourful ‘kolams' that adorn the entrances of every households. “It is seen as an occasion for the women to exhibit their skills in the line drawing. Recently, people also started using powders of different hues to make it look more attractive,” says N. Sulaiman, retired Assistant Director, Department of Art and Culture.

While the colour powders are available throughout the year, their season starts with Deepavali and ends with Pongal. The base for the colour powders are white stone and sand which is powdered and then distributed to the makers. “We get white stone powder from Salem, Tirunelveli and Kappalur,” says G. Shanmugam, a supplier.

“We have seven basic colour powders (chemical powders) such as red, yellow, orange, sandal, violet, indigo and pink. We mix them with white stone or sand in right proportions to make 24 colours,” says K. Nagaraj, a labour.

“For dark shade we mix the desired colour powder with sand and for light shade we use white stone powder as the base,” says M. Rasathi, a vendor.

They sell 100gm packet for Re.1, 200gm packet for Rs.2 and 300 gm packet for Rs.3. Their powder goes as far as Neyveli, Nagercoil, Rameswaram, Cumbum, Salem, Tiruchi, Theni, Dindigul and Sivagangai.