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Updated: February 13, 2010 19:10 IST

A subtle alchemy

Kausalya Santhanam
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Contemporary Decor: In tune with the times. Photo: N.Balaji
The Hindu Contemporary Decor: In tune with the times. Photo: N.Balaji

In an age of plastics, potters are being ruthlessly pushed aside...but artisans show how diversification can hold the key to survival.

Our potters are truly wizards. They create magical shapes with simple and rudimentary tools. These artisans, spread out in all the regions, fashion a cornucopia of artefacts and make humble clay gain the beauty of amber or the sheen of ebony. But in an age of plastics, the potter is being ruthlessly shoved aside. The once ubiquitous village artisan who turned the wheel with the dexterity bequeathed to him by his forefathers, is now forced to turn the lathe at a local factory or carry head loads of mud at the construction site.

One of the most eco-friendly crafts - of the earth and which returns the product to the soil - is rapidly crumbling owing to the onslaught of materials that pollute the earth, water and sky. Even in potters' homes, plastic containers are being used to carry water from the local source, while steel and aluminium utensils replace the goodness of terracotta for storing water, dhal and curd.

Ready to adapt

But numerous potters and their promoters are skilfully engaged in the battle of clay versus plastic. Fifteen master potters from all over the country took part in “Kumbham”, an exhibition organised recently by the Crafts Council of India at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai. The artisans showed their ingenuity in spinning their wheel to keep up with the ever changing Wheel of Time. Pluckily learning new techniques, turning out fresh designs and keeping abreast of trends: they displayed awareness that diversification and addressing present day needs hold the key to survival.

Shilpguru Giriraj Prasad has the traditional potters' pride in his craft that has been gilded by success. His speciality lies in creating beautiful double- fired pots in hues that capture the glow of the sunset with the grey of a cloud laden sky and the black of night. The shapes run off the pots in a manner that makes each piece unique.

The hereditary artisan from Alwar district, Rajasthan, who was struggling to repay a loan of Rs. 200 from the moneylender, shifted to Delhi more than 40 years ago. When he participated in an exhibition organised in Pragati Maidan by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the pioneer in the revival of crafts, it changed the course of his life. “Visitors had suggestions on how the clay containers could be amended to suit their needs,” he recalls. “Pickle jars with wider mouths, oil containers with a stylistic twist- the alterations made all the difference and helped the product make the transition to the living room; the Rs.50 water cooler transforms to Rs.500 when it is beauty added,” says the National award winning champion. In his hamlet, he adds, pots do sell but the difference is in the price. “Sadly, artisans there know only how to make pots for Rs.10; smoothen out the edges and it will sell for Rs.50. If you cook in clay instead of steel you will be healthy. Clay is pure and keeps pure. I have trained 1000 persons and participated in many festivals abroad,” he adds. Unlike Giriraj Prasad, N. Sriramulu from Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh is just starting out in his business of making terracotta artefacts-whimsical little creations such as fishes with upturned tails to be used as planters, images of Lord Ganesa and of horses and cows. “But I don't have enough tools. I want to take a bank loan and set up my own work shed,” he adds .

Low temperature glazed pottery is Harkishen's speciality. The traditional potter migrated from Haryana to Uttam Nagar, Delhi, where 400 potters have settled. The expensive tableware in an attractive symphony of colours – jade green, slate blue and rust — is sought after by an elite clientele. But he is disillusioned with many of those who promote craft. “Much of the money is not benefiting the artisans,” he says, “ and there is no proper infrastructure for them.”

Traditional and modern

In contrast to most artisans, Sarah Bai from Kutch, Gujarat, and Baul Das from Bankura district (known for the endearing shape of its terracotta horse), near the famous terracotta temple of Vishnupur, West Bengal, find their traditional pottery still has takers. Painted terracotta ware is a speciality of Sarah's village. “But transporting fragile pottery poses a problem,” she points out.

Apart from traditional craftsmen like these, others are drawn to the versatility and beauty of terracotta. Tapan Saha, a new age artisan who studied painting in Santiniketan creates stunning jewellery with inlay work, in terracotta. “Actors Aparna Sen and Rani Mukherjee are among my customers,” he says proudly.

Organisations such as “Khamir” in Kutch and “Kumbham” in Kerala help in the resurgence of the potter community. “Kumbham” promotes terracotta in architecture and “our cooking utensils are microwave friendly” state the organisers. “Pottery is not designated as “handicrafts” by the Government. The Government also concentrates on that which is mass produced for export and pottery cannot always fall in that category,” according to a member of CCI. “There are many problems when it comes to improving the lot of potters that have to do with their socio-economic conditions.”

The demand for terracotta ware is constant when it is part of ritual, such as the magnificent horses for Lord Ayyanar in the villages of Tamil Nadu, and other votive figures. Utility objects have a future, especially if they are eco-friendly, such as the “daily dumps” for composting kitchen waste. Terracotta jewellery is a trend but who knows how long this will last? Many potters do not want their children to enter their profession. In the urban areas with the construction of high rise buildings, there is hardly any space left for artisans to fire their ware. But committed potters and craft promoters sustain their crusade in carrying forth a tradition that came with the dawn of civilisation. They are not willing to give up this fight in which the stakes are high. After all, it has to do with the Earth itself.

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