The wheel is slowing

A potter’s wheel once carved out almost all household goods. But now the use of earthenware is limited as polythene and plastic have replaced it and thus forced the craft to diminish. Shazia Yousuf tells a potter’s story …

Golden Hands: A Kashmiri potter at work. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Born in a potter family, Fata has fresh memories of moist clay swirling in the centre of her father’s wheel and blossoming into shapes. She remembers accompanying her father to fetch the finest clay and watch him carve different designs of earthenware. She remembers how she would make small pots and ask her father to put them in the kiln, next to the bigger ones. Those days it was for fun. Today it is her living. A middle-aged woman, Fata helps her potter husband in carving pots. They have two sons but they don’t learn.

“My sons do not bear earthen utensils in our kitchen. They don’t let me cook in them. They say the pots smell of corpses.” says Fata.

A neighbouring woman passing by is annoyed by the remark. “This is ridiculous. This new generation is dead at senses. Everything smells them of death,” she expresses.

This reminds Fata of her childhood when she would use clay for soap. Those days clay would smell good.

Whether it is the corpse of the dead art or the dead hopes of her sons, Fata’s kitchen now glitters with copper and steel utensils. There is a single clay pot kept hidden behind the metal utensils. Her eighty-year-old mother-in-law eats in it.

Pottery is a traditional art in Kashmir. Potters wheel would earlier carve out several household goods – cylindrical vessels for storing rice, pots for cooking and serving food. Water stored in clay pots would remain cold and infection-free. But now the use of earthenware is limited.

Still, a day in Kashmiri Hindu’s life begins by lighting an earthen oil lamp. Kashmiri marriages reverberate with the music of tumbaknaar and noat (traditional Kashmiri earthen musical instruments).

With polythene and plastic making their way into Kashmiri markets, the demand for earthenware has sharply declined. Pottery finds fewer customers as convenient and attractive alternatives are available at cheaper rates.

Mohammad Altaf Baba is an undergraduate student who runs an earthenware shop at Chararisherief. He took over his father’s business after his death. He says his customers are either tourists or elderly people. “I have no money and the government has no jobs. I am compelled to carry on this business. But it has no future,” says Altaf.

There are specialisations in this art. A potter, master in the art of making tandoor (bakery oven), cannot necessarily make a good musical instrument. As only a few products sell in the market, people like Fata who make kitchenware do little business.

“We order only selective items that sell in the market. Items like Tumbaknari, Noat, Tandoor are yet to find any replacement,” says Ghulam Qadir, another shopkeeper.

Mohammad Abdullah Kumar, 60, is proud of his profession but not contented.

“Potters are close to God because he too is a potter. He made a human being from clay and we make pots from it. But there is no need of us in this bone china world,” he says.

“This is a sacred and spiritual profession. Saints would choose potters’ home for staying. Today there is no spirituality. There are no saints. Potters too will disappear soon,” Abdullah adds.

Abdullah has learned this art from his father. Like him, he too sings while working on his wheel. He remembers various couplets that have been written in praise of this art.  He names many saints and Sufi poets that have been potters by profession. But his sons have chosen different professions. His elder son is a mechanic. Two younger ones work as bus conductors.

 “In my family, this art is alive till I am alive. Once I die, the art will also die its own death,” Abdullah confides with a sigh.

But Kashmiri historian and poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef blames potters for the decline. “They should come up with innovative ideas. Make items for decorating homes, gardens. Why should a user stick to inefficient primitive things, if sophisticated ones are available to him?” says Zareef.

Ghulam Hassan Kumar, a potter in Kumar Mohalla at Chararisherief wants the government to come to their rescue. “We villagers are illiterate. We cannot understand government schemes and are scared of taking loans. We cannot afford the costs of firewood. The government can provide us this at a subsidized rate,” he demands.

Times have changed. Fata in her childhood would save money in her Bigiwaer (earthen piggy) to secure her future. Today when a loan or a subsidy scheme is available for every other endeavour, she cannot do the same for her sons. Her piggy is too small for bigger dreams.

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