In a narrow by-lane in Kavundampalayam a community of potters make oil lamps that will light up homes this Karthigai. But there is not much brightness in their own lives, finds out Akila Kannadasan.

“There’s time for a few more,” says Dhandapani, without taking his eyes off a mass of clay swirling on the metal base of a modified wet-grinder. His hands are shaping a clay lamp. Dhandapani is working with urgency. “What’s the time?” he asks as he finishes one more lamp. Just then, the electricity goes off. “Its 4 p.m.,” he sighs. “There was a time when I made 1500 lamps a day. Now, I barely make 700. How can I work when there’s current for only three to four hours a day?”

Ten years ago, if you happened to visit Udayar Veedhi of Kavundampalayam, you would have seen men working on the potter’s wheel from dawn to dusk, while the women would only lend a hand by placing the finished products out to dry. But today, women also contribute significantly to the family’s income in a lot of households in the area.

Dim prospects

Nagarathinam, Meena, Kanniammal… many women spend hours in front of the electric grinder-turned-potter’s wheel making clay lamps all through the year. And around the month of Karthigai, it’s a race against time to make as many lamps as possible.

Says Nagarathinam, “I sit to make lamps after all the house work is over. Work hours are flexible since it’s our own business; I get to spend time with my daughter as well.” But the power cuts, she adds bitterly, have spoiled the pattern. “Now I work only when there’s current.”

But why have they moved on from the traditional potter’s wheel? “The sakkaram requires a lot of physical strength. It’s the men who operate it. Every five minutes, you have to rotate it with a stick to maintain the momentum. There are a few who still work on it to make big pots. But we have switched to grinders since we can make more with less effort,” explains Kanniammal.

There are about 40 families in the locality, most of who have migrated from Palani many years ago. Forty-five-year-old Balasubramaniam came here when he was 15 from the village of Narikkalpatti near Palani. He learned pottery from his father Venkatachalam. Balasubramaniam vividly recalls the Saturday sandhai in his village where his father sold his wares. “It was the biggest sandhai in the area. From cows and goats to vegetables, you got everything there. It was always crowded,” he smiles.

But one day, a light-weight paanai that gleamed in the sun, arrived at the sandhai. People flocked to buy it. Venkatesan and his fellow potters realised that things would never be the same again. “We lost our business to aluminium utensils,” recalls Balasubramaniam. A lot of potters left the village in search of better prospects and Balasubramaniam and his family arrived at Kavundampalayam.

“There is always demand here,” he says. But then, pottery is physically draining. “I developed back pain since I have to work in a bent position for long hours. You should see us the day we fire our ware in the kiln; we are covered in ash and dust.”

There is also a struggle for quality clay. Today, they spend about Rs.5000 for a truck-load. It should be free from stones and should be yielding, explains Balasubramaniam. The 45-year-old says that he was forced to drop out of school due to poverty. “But my daughter is going to college,” he smiles. “Some kids in our area are studying engineering. We want a better life for our children. Why should they toil?”

Ask him where in Tamil Nadu we would find the best clay ware and Balasubramaniam pauses briefly. “Every place has something unique. In Dharmapuri you can get perfectly shaped lamps with designs on them. They are made using moulds, though. Not everyone can afford them.” Then there are the potters from Mana Madurai, their competitors. “Clay ware from there has a reddish gleam to it. The potters add something to the clay to give that colour. We’ve tried asking them what it is, but they’ve kept it a closely-guarded secret.”

Kesava Raj has attempted to copy that by applying colour after the pot is fired in the kiln. “But I can never get the colour of the Mana Madurai pots,” he says.

He has fired a fresh batch of lamps today and his wife, mother and brother are sorting them. Dhandapani’s son Surya watches from a distance. Dandapani ensures that Surya is kept as far from pottery as possible. Does Surya know how a pot is made? The 13-year-old shakes his head. “No. I only know how to make it red. Appa won’t teach me anything else.”