My fascination with Indian culture started early in life. A faded black-and-white picture of an Indian family hung in my parents’ kitchen while I was growing up. The image was of an older woman donning a simple sari as she stood alongside her twelve children. She had lost her husband, and a local priest who knew my parents reached out for their sponsorship. From that point forward, letters from India giving updates on the family’s progress came at regular intervals. Although I now have a better understanding of how dire that woman’s situation must have been, my younger self was taken by the details in the photo: the exotic textile that wrapped around her, the bangle on her wrist, the mark she wore on her forehead, and the stories from the distant land she lived in. I imagined seeing that land for myself someday and all its remarkable offerings.
I’ve now been to India many times. December is the best time to leave my cold Minnesota home and make the journey to where it is a perfect 70°F (21°C). I arrive in New Delhi, where the wedding season is beginning and parade processions and music fill the streets. The call to prayer from mosques and chanting from the Sikh temples wake me each day. This is a land where the merging of spirituality, art, and culture is constantly occurring. I have many of these moments embedded in my memory and I cherish each one dearly.
My most recent trip to India included touring Uttam Nagar on the outskirts of New Delhi. When I first visited this village years ago, it was a collection of huts that were home to some 400 families of potters. As time has passed, a more contemporary settlement featuring newly constructed, condo-style cement homes with courtyards has emerged. Even with such updates, cows can still be seen tied up outside the condos or left to amble along the walkways freely with the chickens. The pottery production happens directly in the center of the living space and kilns are now tucked into or around the architectural elements such as the staircase in this new-style home. Somehow, modernity is in juxtaposition to centuries of tradition.
This particular area of potters originally came from the state of Rajasthan generations ago. The vocation is patrilineal, therefore each man learns his trade from his father. These potters supply the community with water jars, chai cups, oil lamps for the Diwali festival, and wares for cooking aromatic dishes such as biryani. Their clay is delivered from an area outside the city and minimally processed by pounding, screening, and mixing with water to soak under a towel in their workshop until used.
As I toured the area, two brothers, Jagmohan and Bhajanlal, whose pottery production was in full swing invited me into their workshop (Jagmohan Mfg. Wholesaler and Retailers). Inside the open courtyard, the sun cascaded over the dirt floor illuminating a sea of pots in various phases of production. The brothers specialize in two-piece press-molded earthenware water jars with an added wheel-thrown neck.
Jagmohan squats at his motorized wheel, throwing what appear to be bowl forms. He is preparing the two-part molds for next season. After the firing, these bowl-like forms, equal in diameter and depth, will serve as the top and bottom of the press mold for making a water jar. The interior of the top mold is incised with deft precision, revealing images of fish, flowers, or geometric shapes. It also has a 5-inch diameter opening for placement of the wheel-thrown neck attachment (see 2). The bottom mold has a low-relief ring carved in the base to serve as the foot ring.
In another section of the workshop two potters are working in tandem. One is wiring off clay from a prepared mound and throwing it onto the dusted area of floor where she squats to work. Rhythmically she starts to slap her hands down on the clay in a spiraling motion (1). Each strike is followed by an upward motion where the clay is slightly rotated before striking downward again. This is done with such fluid motions that when completed, the result is a perfectly flat disk. In one final sweeping gesture, she places her palm in the middle of the disk and lifts it upward and into the mold for the top section of the jar (2, 3), pressing it into shape. Both top and bottom molded pieces are formed in this manner, with mica dust creating a brilliant, glittering surface. The potter cuts into the center of the slab to make a 5-inch diameter circular cut away (4) where a neck will be thrown on the top of the vessel after it reaches a leather-hard state. The potter prepares a second slab (5), which will be compressed into the press mold of the bottom half of the water jar (see 7).
The other potter now takes the top mold and, keeping it oriented upside down, quickly rotates it with his foot while methodically attaching a coil to the interior edge in a scalloping motion (6, 7). He then takes both the top and bottom molds, places them on their sides with raw edges facing each other, aligns, and attaches them (8) before placing them upright. He then inserts his hand through the top opening of this newly formed vessel, and quickly rotates it with his foot, while smoothing the previously placed coil to reinforce the seam. This form will now be put aside to stiffen up before the mold is removed (9) and further drying occurs. Once the clay has dried to leather hard and has been removed from the press molds, the final forming process of the thrown neck begins. The stiffened vessel is placed upright on a centered clay chuck (10) and a hand-formed clay doughnut is attached. From this doughnut-shaped attachment, the neck is thrown (11, 12). Further drying is necessary before an iron wash is applied to the neck and bottom of the form.
After fully drying (13), the pieces are placed in the kiln for firing. The kiln is cylindrical in shape with a grate-like system separating the ware from the firebox below. Pots are placed upside down and in concentric rings. Layer upon layer of pots are stacked, then finally enclosed with broken shards in a dome-like shape to contain the heat. The firebox is at the base of kiln and sawdust or wood is used for firing to the desired temperature which is often simply described as “red color” (or red heat). This point in firing takes four to five hours to reach. When finished, the kiln is left to cool and then is unloaded the following day (14). The fired pots are often purchased by local shop keepers for 30–50 rupees, which is less than one US dollar.
The Future of Small Production Shops
The future of the Indian production potter seems uncertain. Poverty-level living can easily be the reality for potters and as technology progresses, the next generation will likely break with tradition of inherited vocations for higher paying tech jobs in the cities. Over the years, I have seen regions of India continue to use folk pottery made by local potters; however, an increasing number of paper cups and plastic water containers are now more evident. Bulbous earthenware water jars are still found along roadsides for public use and the thrown chai cup is much loved. However, certain progress in education, economy, and aspirations of the next generation will drastically shift the market and future for the Indian production potter.
the author Kate Maury is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Learn more at www.katemaury.com.