The historical, vibrant-blue, underglaze-decorated pottery tradition in Jaipur, India, is making a comeback.
Jaipur blue pottery is said to have been imported via Mongol artisans, who mixed their knowledge of Chinese glazing technology with Persian decoration. It travelled south to India in the 14th century, where, at first it was used to make tiles to decorate mosques, tombs, and palaces in Central Asia. With further development from the Mughals, the technique gradually became more than an architectural accessory for Kashmiri potters. It travelled from Delhi to Jaipur in the 17th century. However, the demand for the products swiftly died out as people wanted cheaper materials and there was a lack of expert artisans. In recent decades, however, it has started to make a comeback.
Kailash Doraya is the 7th generation of his family to make Jaipur blue pottery. He runs a small factory that employs 10–15 people on the outskirts of Jaipur, Rajasthan. His family is only one of four or five families actively producing pottery in the Jaipur technique. I had the opportunity to visit him, and learn of how his family came to make blue pottery. One day, two of his family members came to Jaipur and were flying a kite. They ended up crossing and cutting the Maharaja’s kite. The Maharaja discovered that they were potters from Iran/Iraq and they ended up making pottery for the Maharaja to appease him after ruining his kite. One of Doraya’s forefathers painted pottery for the Maharaja.
Making the Dough
Doraya refers to preparing the materials as making dough, rather than making a clay body, because the ingredients in a typical clay body constitute only one part of the recipe. Because of this, there are various techniques one can do with it that would be impossible with pure clay. The other ingredients are quartz, glass, rock salt, and gum. The ratios are roughly 1 part each of gum, salt, and clay (Fullers Earth, which is usually bentonite, kaolinite, montmorillonite, and attapulgite): 7 parts glass: 40 parts quartz. The raw materials are mixed with water and left overnight. The next day they are kneaded together into a uniform consistency and again left for 2–3 days before use.
Because of the low plasticity of the dough, many of the objects in Jaipur blue pottery are made in plaster molds, using press-molding techniques. The dough is rolled out into a flat circular shape that Doraya calls a chappati, due to its similarity in texture and size to one of the flat breads of Indian cuisine. They fill the inside of the mold with raakh or burnt wood ash to fit the chappati to the mold from the inside out, then it is left for one to two days to dry. After it has dried completely, the excess raakh is brushed off using a koochi or small broom. If uneven thickness occurs during the drying process, the dried dough is simply rehydrated until it is leather hard and trimmed to uniformed thickness using a patti (iron knife).
Many of the forms in Jaipur blue pottery require an added foot. Rather than making a foot with a plaster mold, the dried, plaster-cast form is placed upside down on a potter’s wheel and the foot is thrown directly onto the form. Before the wet dough is affixed to the press-molded form, the attachment area is wet with water until it becomes leather hard to ease the transition from completely dry to wet dough and prevent cracking between the two parts. The wheel at Doraya’s factory is low on the ground and hand cranked. I suspect it was cast out of metal or solid concrete and rotates on steel ball bearings because during the demonstration I received, that wheel did not slow down even slightly, no matter how much pressure and drag was applied during throwing.
Decoration and Glazing
Jaipur potters do not bisque fire their wares, but before the underglaze decoration can be painted on, the dried pieces are smoothed with a slurry mixture of dough and water to fill any holes on the surface that may have been caused by the ash placed in the mold during drying. Using sandpaper to smooth the surface, the pieces are again coated by hand with a slip that is a mixture of quartz powder, powdered glass, and edible flour called maida. After a second round of sanding, the piece is finally ready for the underglaze.
Many of the common motifs in Jaipur pottery are flower patterns or geometric designs—both are commonly seen in the Islamic arts from which Jaipur pottery evolved, but animals such as elephants and peacocks are also recurring images. As it is the most time-intensive part of the process, when I arrive at Doraya’s factory, the majority of the workers were busy painting the underglaze designs. A sketch of the design is first done in pencil on the clay’s surface, then outlined with cobalt oxide, and finally filled in with other oxides according to color. In order to create the underglaze colors, oxides are mixed with gum, which acts as a binding agent. The colors of Jaipur pottery are as follows: copper to create turquoise; chromium to create green; cobalt to create dark blue and black; iron to create brown; cadmium to create yellow; and manganese to create purple.
After the decoration is finished, the work is glazed. Making the glaze is a very involved process. A combination of powdered glass, borax, zinc oxide, potassium nitrate, and boric acid are mixed together and heated until the mixture melts. After it cools, the resulting glass is again ground into a fine-powdered frit and mixed with maida and water to create the final glaze. After being dipped in the glaze, all pieces are set in the sun to dry.
The traditional kiln used in Jaipur blue pottery is as unique as the dough and glaze itself; most closely resembling a geodesic dome, the door of the kiln is also its chimney and is located right at the apex in the middle of the dome. Doraya jokes with me that this kiln design is perfect, except for the one thing they have to remove before firing. When I ask him what, he responds dryly, “Well, the man inside.” It is a wood-fired kiln with a small pit located right in front of the small opening where they throw the wood inside, with smaller stoke holes around the base. It is fired in oxidation for 8 hours to 1832°F (1000°C). After cooling for 2–3 days, the kiln is unloaded and the pieces are sorted and sent off to market.
the author Maggie Connolly received her MFA from Tsinghua University School of Fine Arts in Beijing, China, and her PhD from Tokyo University of the Fine Arts. Currently, she works as an independent specialized researcher at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts in Tokyo, Japan.