When you taste Chai in a Kulhad, you are deluged by the smell of the earthen pot. As a bit of the tea soaks into the clay, the interaction of both the flavours becomes heavenly. Chai in Kulhad is always special to me!
Over a cup of tea, my friend and I started our conversation on Kulhad and other pottery items, at a small Tapri in a narrow lane in Bangalore. While my friend was quick to point out that they are 100% sustainable and eco-friendly, it is also true that pottery utensils are naturally high in alkaline which means that using them can help in lowering down the acidic flow in your body. Hence, you become less likely to suffer from chronic diseases.
Overhearing us, the chai seller added:
“Maati ki bani saari cheezen achhi hoti hain. Aap kabhi poterry town jaiye, paas hi hai…”
And that’s how we decided to visit the pottery town.
It is in Benson Town, a part of the city that brings about the rustic charm and the fragrance that transports you to a bygone era. It resembles a movie set with a narrow street in the middle and tiny houses on both sides. You move along and you will find a good part of the street covered with a whole lot of earthenware, colourful and shining, displaying the creativity of the residents, half-dried and still baking in the sun.
Pottery has been done here since 1926. This town is home to the Kumbhara community comprising over 40 work sheds and 120 potters with their families, migrated from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
It was my first visit and yet, I could feel a strange connect with the place. While walking down, one can catch a glimpse of potters spinning their magic on the wheel. When you go talk to them, each person has a different story to tell. Sadaashiva says, “The income these days, is not enough to sustain a family. We use traditional manual potter’s wheels and kilns and practice it along with subsistence agriculture”.
On further enquiry, I found that pottery is a seasonal business, and it booms mainly during the festivals of Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali and Dussehra. The technological advancements and higher labour costs are giving a tough time to the manual artwork and its cultural significance. Slowly but gradually, it is being taken over by the industrial innovations.
Pottery is as old as humankind and one of the oldest of our handicrafts. The history of clay dates back to 9,000-10,000 BC when clay vessels were used to store food and water. But unfortunately, it has now become an occupation that merely provides for a hand-to-mouth existence.
Another conversation with the Kumbhars made me understand that it is more of a passion than a profession for the older generation but the younger ones think differently. Most potters in the fraternity had planned to quit pottery for good and even contemplated other livelihood options. They are now hesitant about their next generation taking it up and rather wish for them to get a stable job. I found it ironic because on one hand, they seem to be emotionally attached to their occupation but on the other, they do not want to see their children following their footsteps.
Pottery also takes a lot of time, effort and resources as compared to the returns on it. The potential buyers and customers are moving to cheaper and more durable options like plastic cups and vessels. That, and the lack of any systemic support leaves the potters with little to depend on.
The famous pottery sheds in Benson Town date back to the times in British India. After the artisans migrated from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the then Mysore government built homes for them. That’s how the town got its name. Known as ‘Kumbhara Choola’ those days, the area was renamed 45 years ago by the Bangalore Municipality Board, bringing it under the civic body. In 1974, following the demands of potters, they were leased the land for a period of 30 years. Since the end of that lease agreement in 2004 to now, the pottery union’s attempts to renew it, have not been successful.
The fear of being homeless due to the expired lease, and the slum dwellers taking over a majority of the land are huge threats.
Murali, another potter in the area, anxiously inspects the ongoing Metro rail construction work outside his workshop everyday. He says, “We are on the verge of being wiped out from here. It’s an everyday struggle to retain our ancestral workspace and homes”
Google tells me that Bible denotes “God as the potter and us as clay”. In Hindu mythology, the Kumbhars who are sadly fighting for their existence today, are believed to have emerged from the cosmic ocean during the epic Samudra manthan.
It makes me wonder how or what can revive this practice and occupation as a means of livelihood. The government support towards the declining clay business culture provides the potters with some funds, recognition and an access to a wider market but that seems to be the only saving grace right now. Such a craft and the skills woven into the lives and the culture of these people should be saved from fading away.