Re-Engineering Pottery

As the modern Kashmir elevated its kitchen-status to imported ceramics, copper and glassware, hundreds of potters halted their wheels and jumped to other jobs for a better living with a claim to better status in the new social order. This has pushed the world’s oldest manufacturing activity to obvious oblivion. Now a young engineer is reviving the art with modern tools, better designs and is keen to help the professionals in managing competition, reports Saba Gul

Saima Shafi (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)
Saima Shafi (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

It has been decades since Kashmir’s wise men wrote pottery’s obituary. Mostly restricted to urban Srinagar, they lacked access to the larger reality that the world’s oldest manufacturing activity and the purest handicraft still survives in Kashmir. The potters are, however, in dire straits and most of the families have switched over to other professions. Poverty is the hallmark of the surviving potter families.

Those who have not been able to switch over are those lacking any other skill other than pottery – like the families inhabiting the Gufkral, the oldest address of mankind in Kashmir. There are a few families who have are super-specialists within the pottery.

The modern Kashmir has been using copper for many centuries now and the elite has gone into glassware as stainless steel is the key kitchen element in the middle class. However, for a particular class, the choice is still between earthenware and aluminium.

But the modernization has not been able to replace certain earthenware in Kashmir.

It is not possible to have Kangri unless you have the koundal, the earthen pot that the wicker-basket covers. There is no possibility of having a  Lavas, Tchoutchwour or  Bakerkhawni unless you have a Tandour. This is besides the emergence of the bakery as the new economy within the bread sector. One of Kashmir-origin Briton’s started a restaurant and he had no option but to get a Kashur Tandour transported to London! And in most Srinagar families, the common refrain is that you do not get a good curd unless its fermentation takes place in earthenware. This is besides the Tumbaknari, NaabadNout and many other things that are ingrained in Kashmir culture. Those in their fifties do miss the Biginwaer where their coins would land as part of the saving process initiated by the families.

The biggest problem that the wise men using European bone china and the Italian earthenware did not detect was that the age-old pottery back home lacked any modern intervention. Nobody looked towards the art that sustained the kitchens of Kashmir since Gufkrals started the wheel in Tral forests.

In the twenty-first century, now, a young Kashmiri girl has chosen a less trodden path to invigorate this dying art. She is busy in modernising the art. If handheld properly, she can be the game-changer in managing the technology and modernity deficit and bring Kashmir pottery to the level of Europe.

In between the meandering alleyways of Green Lane, Azad Basti, in city’s crowded Natiporabelt, lies the abode of an old city girl who loves to knead and mould the clay with her hands into elegant designs and patterns. Under the attic of her father’s two-storey home, she has set up her own workplace, a literal workshop that is the first potter laboratory in Kashmir.

Working on an electric wheel, she could be seen throwing or hand-building the wet clay to create mugs, pots, vases and plates. Fighting against all odds, she cherishes the dream of having her own collection of glazed earthenware.

She is Saima Shafi, an engineer who works for the government, but instantly, transforms herself into a potter once she drives home in the evening. Eldest to her siblings, Saima is born to a middle-class family. She did her schooling from Devki Arya Putri Patashala and joined the Mallinson Girls School at the higher secondary level. Inclined towards the art since her schooldays, Saima always was fond of participating in extra-curricular activities, mostly around arts and crafts.

“Being a medical student with additional subject as mathematics, I couldn’t make it to the medical school but later after qualifying CET, I went to SSM College to pursue my engineering degree,” Saima said while working on her electric wheel. “I also got selected for Architectural Engineering through AIEEE outside the state but wasn’t allowed by my parents to leave Kashmir.”

Lost in her own world of innocence, Saima said she used to play with her hand made earthen toys during her school days. Saima always dreamt of possessing them forever. Whenever she visited Chrar-e-Sharief with her family, she never returned empty-handed. Buying earthen pots was her favourite thing. Be it Biginwaer, Tombakhnaari, Khaespyale, Thalbaan, or an oil lamp she never missed her ‘shopping’. She always felt some connection with these earthen items. She had never thought one day her creativity will find a way that will surpass all barriers.

On a short tour with her family, it was at Chandigarh where she got inspired by a distinctive yet beautiful pot. There she came to know that the concept of pottery was manifold and umpteen things can be made out of it. She purchased the fascinating item. With delicate care, Saima put the pot in her lap and travelled back home. By then, she had to complete her MBA in infrastructure and finance. There was a fascination for the pottery but a degree was the first priority.

Saima completed her studies, got a degree, and within no time, was selected for the post of a Junior Engineer in state’s Public Works Department (PWD). At the same time, however, she was also selected for the position of assistant professor at the Lovely Professional University in Punjab. Weighing the options, Saima chose to stay in Kashmir and not move into teaching line outside the state.

But life is never smooth; it usually is a roller coaster ride. There were ups and downs in her life too. “I felt spiritless toward the job, and myself,” admitted Saima. “So, I decided to take off from my daily mundane routine and invest my leisure time in some creative work. It was then the world pottery came to my mind. The only thing I did was to Google-pottery. To add to my surprise, it came out to be a vast field spread across the globe.” All of a sudden, the young engineer felt she can no more be a naïve to pottery, mankind’s oldest manufacturing set-up.

Saima’s pottery. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)
Saima’s pottery. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

Saima’s quest for pottery and potters prompted her to research more within Kashmir. She was completely unimpressed as she felt the art getting from bad to worse. She even failed to locate a right teacher who could impart her the basic training in the pottery. Saima felt that in Kashmiri it was a wild-goose chase to go for any further research as people have forgotten this precious art. It was, unfortunately, reduced to fragments.

Chandigarh was the first place that crossed her mind. She thought of taking up a course there as it was the city where a unique pot had enticed her. But sadly, she couldn’t find a college, which could fine-tune with her job commitments in Srinagar. Delhi was the only place where she found various institutes which imparted pottery related courses but they weren’t ready to adjust with her busy schedule. Those were regular courses and she had to manage her recently acquired engineering job as well. Eventually, she went to Clay Studio in Bangalore where she learnt the art. Owned by a humble and well-to-do couple, Saima said the husband-wife had left their job at a multinational company to chase their passion and started the studio.

“We people in Kashmir are blessed with huge spaces,” admits Saima after living some time outside the Vale. “Here everyone has his home, but Bangalore being the busiest city doesn’t offer such things. I was impressed with the way they had managed their space.”

The couple, she said, welcomed her. “I felt relaxed as they easily agreed to accustom with my time schedule,” Saima said.

Being at a challenging and demanding job, it was tough for her to take leave for a six months course. So, she took a course for one month with four mentors guiding her at every step. She was taken aback by the interest the women were showing towards the pottery as the studio was full of them. Mostly aged women were high in number than men, she said.

After coming back from Bangalore, Saima desired to work with women potters but could not find any female potter. She believes it was because of the social stigma attached to the fine art in Kashmir society. She thought of hiring some male potters but she was shocked to know that most of the potters have closed their business because of the poor income. The erstwhile potters had switched to other jobs that were remunerative to their blood and sweat investment to the field. The potter, she came to the conclusion, was taking death gasps if not really dead.

“People are busy buying things that pose a serious threat to their lives,” Saima said.“Are they sure the ceramic products they purchase from local cart-vendors are safe? They are highly injurious to health.”

Kashmir’s enigmatic social stratification apart, there have been a series of intervention that pushed people to the lower stratum of the society to avail diversity of social mobilisation. One of the major state government interventions has been the inclusion of, among other professions, potters as social castes. This enabled them to avail certain life-changing reservations. Families with some kind of literacy in the family availed this opportunity. As the generation got into professional training or the state government services, the Kumhar caste merely indicated the roots and not the current status.

While the utility of the earthenware was fundamental to the crisis, experts insist that the social order was not less cruel. The potters have historically led a miserable life on the lowest side of the economic order. In the villages where they would not own any landed estate, the Kraul would purchase a particular soil, make the item and bake them. Then the Kriej, the female potter, would take over and market it. Unlike taking their products to a market for sale, these female potters would routinely go from door to door and sell their products. For most of life, their sales have been actually a barter. They would exchange their products in exchange for grains and not cash. In certain areas, the potters would live in close proximity with the professionals making related products. In Wukie (pronounced OK) village of Kulgam, there were Kangri weavers and potters, living side by side, some of them actually doing both the jobs.

Kashmiri Pandits would see earthenware as sacred and most of their rituals would be linked to locally-made earthenware. Their migration in 1990, reduced a section of the dedicated market.

Over the years, however, they have started facing social problems. Residents said that they are willingly marrying their daughters in the farming families but it is not possible in reversal. This has led the potters to stay as an endogamous group. Barring the Koundal, there are not many items that the society consumes. People prefer plastic to earthenware which has made the potters almost irrelevant.

This situation has led the new generation to stop thinking about the profession even as a part-time measure.

While hunting for a teacher, Saima knew all this. Finally, she set up her own “shop”, a workshop at home. There was some resistance but the father supported his daughter. For the last many months now, this workshop is her laboratory and home to her creativity.

Pottery is usually made from stoneware, terracotta and kaolin clay. The clay and the glazes she uses are not locally available. She orders them online. After designing a pot, it is left to dry till baking is done at high temperatures to give them hard and durable form. Then different glazes are added to give these clay products an alluring look. Saima recalls the advice of her teachers: “Listen Saima, whatever earthenware you are interested in, be it wind chimes, bowls, platters or cups, make sure it will never be at the cost of human health.”

Saima has faced many hardships in initiating this step. She managed funds from her earnings. She also ordered an electric wheel online as nothing was locally available. She believes that due to taboos, lack of facilities and exposure, people associated with this unique art have shifted to other profitable business.

“Life is challenging, we need to fight back with perseverance,” Saima said. “Our society is conservative and passing caste-linked remarks is obvious but I am proud to be a Kraal Kour. Once a person gets engrossed in this creative work, worries vanish into thin air. It is a real stress-buster.”

When she decided to learn the pottery, she was in search of hope. It was not in her genes to surrender to pessimism. She says she remained determined and consistent towards the hobby. She has also made up her mind to bring back lost hope in the lives of potters.

“We need to revive this art as it is through artists and their work that a nation becomes globally known,” Saima insisted.“The government should also take necessary steps to rejuvenate this art. It should introduce different courses pertaining to pottery both at college and university level.”

Saima during her pottery work. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)
Saima during her pottery work. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

Her pottery corner in her attic is stuffed with her creations. These hardly look local. She is willing to take her passion to the next level and doesn’t bother to partner a shift in the pottery craft if it helps to revive the vanishing art. Saima believes that some of the best crockeries is possible to be recreated in Kashmir and that can reduce the capital flight that people spend to make their kitchenware modern.

The possibility of her involvement in transferring the art to the potters is firm, but being single-handed, she doesn’t know how to execute her actions in a planned manner. She believes that this art can do wonders if promoted with grit as it carries the potential to revive an age-old handicraft. She has also no plans to get into the marketing of her manufacture. Occasionally, however, she showcases her art at different seminars and workshops to help others in getting involved with the revival of pottery on modern lines.


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