A Clay Thing

Not so long ago clay utensils were central to Kashmir’s lifestyle. But as plastic took over, people associated with the craft are fading into timeline. Mohammad Raafi reports

Kashmir-PottersPuffing a cigarette, Bashir Ahmad Kumar, 70, is sitting outside his shop in Rainawari, Srinagar negotiating price of clay-made items with his customers. “I work very hard to make these items. At least let me earn some reasonable profit,” Bashir, a potter since 70s, tells his customers.

“Plastic boxes of same size costs much less,” replies one of the unmoved customers. Fearing to lose a customer, Bashir sells the box, albeit unconvincingly.

“This is not new for us, we face such situations every day,” said Bashir.

The first sign of pottery in Kashmir can be traced between 3000 BC and 1000 BC, thanks to Burzhama archeological site located on the outskirts of Srinagar. The excavation of earthen pots from Burzuham site reveals the importance of pottery in Kashmir.  “Not so long age big cylindrical earthen vessels were used for storage of rice,” said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, noted poet, satirist and historian. “Even food was cooked and served in earthen utensils.” The tradition of storing water in earthen pots is still prevalent in rural areas, said Zareef.

During marriages, traditional musical instruments like Tumbakneer (goblet drum) and Noat (used to store water), are still a common feature.

However, with plastic making its way into Kashmir markets, the demand for earthenware has sharply declined.

Interestingly, before migration of Pandits from Kashmir in 1989, clay-made items were in huge demand. Reason: clay was considered sacred by Kashmiri Pandits. “Using a clay-made item was considered an act of sanctity,” said Zareef.

“Like fire and water, earth too represents a deity”

With the migration of Pandits, the potters of Kashmir lost a large customer base. To fill the gap, potters experimented with use of attractive colors and creating new designs.

“We have to compete with plastic, steel and aluminum,” said Bashir. “We are innovating and evolving constantly to stay in the competition.”

Presently, Bashir says, Tumbakneer, foot scrubbers, flower pots, small boxes, piggy banks etc. are some of the items still in demand. However, it is not much, says Bashir. He blames successive governments for letting pottery slide in oblivion. “Nobody cares about it anymore,” said Bashir, who inherited the art of making clay items from his father.

But unlike his father, Bashir has not passed on this art to his children. “It earns me nothing. Why should I ruin their lives too,” said Bashir.

Apart from art, Bashir’s inherited a small piece of land from his father. “But it couldn’t elevate my economical status,” said Bashir. “Even I couldn’t add a single penny to what he left. It was always a hand-to-mouth situation.”

A little further Bilal Ahmad Kumar, who is in his early fifties, is working in his workshop. He is proud of his profession but not satisfied. “God created mankind out of clay,” said Bilal. “That way potters used to be a blessed lot.”

But Bilal is skeptical about his future as bone china and other alternatives are eating up the market. “This used to be a sacred profession,” said Bilal, who is a third generation potter. “Saints would choose a potters home for staying. But there are no saints left now. We too will disappear soon.”

Like his father, Bilal too sings while working on the wheel. “A number of saints were potters,” said Bilal reciting a few couplets in praise of his profession.

Bilal too is unwilling to pass on his legacy to his children. “My elder son is a mechanic. Two younger ones work as bus conductors,” said Bilal.

However, it pains Bilal to think that after he is gone, nobody will keep the family’s tradition of clay-work alive. “It will die with me,” said Bilal painfully.

When a profession fails to fill an artisans belly, its future is in dark, feels Zareef. “Same has happened with pottery.”

Another pressing issue that threatens the future of pottery in Kashmir is stigma attached to the profession. “A potter is looked down upon in our society,” said Zareef. “Besides they earn peanuts after putting such hard work.”

Experts believe potters have failed to keep pace with modernity, something that is eventually going to prove costly for people associated with it. “Potters should come up with innovative ideas to stay relevant,” feels Zareef. “They should make clay items which can be used for decorating purpose.”

Ghulam Hassan Kumar, 60, a third generation potter, wants government to come to their rescue. “We don’t understand government schemes. We are illiterate,” said Hassan, who feels scared of taking a loan.

Hassan and other potters blame fluctuating firewood rates, unavailability of designated places to extract soil, and less returns for decline in the trade. “The least government can do is to provide us with subsidized firewood,” said Hassan. “This way we can at least save something for rainy days.”

Bashir remembers how as a kid he used to save money in a Bigiwaer (piggy bank). “Times have changed now.”

Bashir says, there are loan facilities for almost every profession except potters. “How can we realize our dreams with financial support? Our piggy banks are too small to help,” said Bashir.

Interestingly there is not data available with state’s census department regarding number of potters in Kashmir. The data with the department is classified into two groups: workers and non-workers. “It is hard to tell how many potters are left now,” said Zareef.

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