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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Crafts in Kutch Part 2 - Molding Earth


In Hindu mythology, Bhrama, the Creator of the Universe, made a clay model of a human into which he breathed life. For this reason, the Hindu potter is known as Prajapati, meaning the creator of humanity. The Kumbhar (potters’) communities of Kachchh and throughout India have a strong religious connection with their work. They believe that the god Shiv has blessed them with protective fire and a consistent work that will always be enough to sustain their families. Pottery is particularly meaningful to the craftspeople because its creation represents the culmination of all five of the Hindu elements: fire, water, earth, air, and akasha (space).

Crafting earth
Kachchhi potters must have an intimate understanding of the environment for their craft to thrive.  
To collect quality clay, potters in the Banni region travel far into the grassland seeking dense clusters of vegetation. They know that where there are grasses there will be a subterranean water source, and therefore a smooth, quality clay pocket perfect for ceramics. The potters of Tuna near the sea wade directly into the water to collect clay from below their feet. Here the clay is salty and porous, able to hold water and keep it cool.

To obtain the black, red and white clays used both for building and decorating their pots, artisans collect white china clay and mineral-rich red and black clays from specific pockets in the area. The geographic knowledge and ability to assess quality of these sources is passed down from generation to generation.  When the monsoon season begins and clay becomes less accessible, the potters give up their craft temporarily, focusing on seasonal agricultural work.

In its form and practice, the Kachchh pottery craft represents a deep-rooted understanding of the environment as well as representing a model of local, natural, and sustainable craft practice. 

The Process

Sara-bai is the region's most accomplished potter, and when you see her painting skills you understand why. She is also a wonderful person - when I met her she gave me a big hug and smile that made me feel immediately comfortable.

If you have ever done pottery in school, you at least know the basic technique of wheel throwing, What makes the Kachchhi style unique is that they use a stick to turn the wheel by hand like a top.

Firing the pots in a big pit.

Sara-bai's adorable granddaughters on their way to Arabic lessons after school.
(Unrelated, but I had to include this photo)
White, black and red slips are used for decoration. The brushes are all pieces of wood that are frayed at one end.
This is one reason Sara-bai's detailing is so amazing.

Sara-bai paints delicate lines using a thick wooden brush.

I tried painting a scrap with the wooden brushes. SO HARD.
Sara-bai did like my bird motif, though.

Some finished products.

Instead of keeping water in the fridge (which many people don't have), people in Kachchh (and around India)
 keep water in a pot like this. The porousness of the clay keeps the water cool. 

Vendors in Bhuj sell pots on the side of the road. 

Terracotta and the stages of life
In Kachchh, as in other parts of India, pottery plays an important ritualistic role in the cycle of life. Communities use dozens of forms of terracotta to correspond with the different stages of life: clay bowls holding oils, water, leaves, and coconut are used as part of the sixth-day chahti ceremony that marks the birth of a child; small lamps are used daily for ritual pujas;  terracotta of many sizes and shapes are used as part of the marriage ceremony to hold up the wedding canopy and to contain smaller ritual items such as water, rice, oil, ghee, and khum khum (red paste);  the clay is shaped into animals as children’s toys; into lamps for festivals; and into special bowls for use in the death ceremony.

Hindu tradition teaches that porous earthenware absorbs dirt and negative energy.  Rules of ritual pollution therefore require people to discard and replace earthenware during festivals and significant occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths.  As a result of this belief, potters have historically enjoyed a stable local market for their craft.

An Ancient Lineage
Modern Kachchhi pottery traces its roots back thousands of years to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization.  One of the world’s earliest urban civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization spread across the western region of South Asia (in what are now Pakistan, Eastern Afghanistan, and Northwestern India including Kachchh) from 3300-1300 BCE. The civilization is noted for its architectural accomplishments such as building cities of brick, roadside drainage systems, and multistoried houses, along with a number of handicrafts that include pottery.

Today, the potters of Kachchh continue to practice their craft in much the same way as their geographic ancestors. Collecting clay from pockets in the region, building up pots by hand or on the wheel, and painting their products with motifs passed down through the generations, many modern terracotta pieces reveal the influence of the ancient pottery of the region. At the same time, today’s potters take artistic liberties in order to market to new audiences, creating a variety of products for both the local market and beyond.

Fragment of pottery from Indus Valley Civilization

Painted Pottery Around India
Pottery is one of the most universal of all crafts – terracotta is found on every continent and the craft has been practiced for thousands of years. In India alone there are dozens of pottery styles, forming objects that transgress barriers of caste and religion and are used at every stage of life.
Despite the ubiquitous nature of pottery, only a few regions within India boast the kinds of intricate painting techniques found in Kachchh. In Rajastan, bold blocks of white and red highlight the complicated black designs painted on top. Potters in Himachal Pradesh paint white lines directly onto red surfaces, which become discolored as part of the smoke fire process that defines the region’s work.

In Kachchh, potters paint delicate black and white designs over their red-coated terracotta or red and black designs on white coated pieces.  Many of the motifs are similar to those discovered at Indus Valley Civilization sites in the region such as Dolevida and Lothal, suggesting a remarkable continuity in design passed down from generation to generation.  In addition, the similarities in design among pottery in Northern India and Eastern Pakistan suggest the history of trade and migration that have historically linked these regions.

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