Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pottering about 'Pottery Town' and going nutty over pottery!

After I winded up my 'dekko' of the exhibitions I was on my way to the 'Pottery Town.' I was totally getting nutty over pottery! The word is 'pottery', mind you and not 'potty' (Cheeee!)

The 'Pottery Town' of Bangalore is the equivalent of 'Kumartuli' or 'Kumortuli' or the 'Potters Town' of Kolkata. But, smaller in area. Heaps of pottery of all shapes and sizes lay around. Pots of various shapes/sizes, plates, earthen cups or 'katoras' or 'matir bhand' as they call it in Bengal, and used for sipping tea; 'mitti ka chulha' or earthen stoves (I said 'Chulha' and not 'Dulha', no 'Dulha' is made of mitti!), utensils used for cooking and other household use, jars of different types, piggy-banks, lamps, other decoration pieces, apart from various figures/figurines. These came in the shape of elephants, horses (including the famous 'Bankura Ghoda') but were coloured a golden yellow. I was overjoyed to see the 'Bankura Ghoda' finally, after having searched for it in vain for a long time (in Bangalore), but was not too keen to get one that came with a 'Golden' touch. Not to be mistaken with the 'Midas touch'........I am all for the 'Midas touch!'

My interest in clay, terracotta and pottery led to the discovery that for most pottery stuffs, 'Pottery Town,' as the name suggests, is the best destination. The ‘town’ is a few rustic alleys choc-a-bloc with pottery raw material, local potters and their ware. On request they can acquire various qualities of clay by the kilos and if one looks around a bit it might be possible to rent a potter’s room with wheel and all. A lot of the finished pots and sculptures and terracotta artifacts that are sold here are fascinating and bears the 'personal touch' of the potter, while the designs stay within the lines of traditional pottery and local art. That way one gets 'the best of both worlds' so to speak!

Pottery Town was born when the Government gave 60 potters a designated area on a 30-year lease and 23 families are in business here. I have always been very fascinated by pottery, especially the 'potter's wheel' and was actually looking forward to visiting Pottery Town for a while. This is an integral part of the culture of Bangalore and by extension of India as well. I came away even more fascinated. Needless to say, I intend to visit again as I missed out on seeing with my own eyes 'a potter busy at work with his wheel.'

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned his thoughts on the wheel:

Turn, turn, my wheel! Turn round and round
Without a pause, without a sound:
So spins the flying world away!
This clay, well mixed with marl and sand,
Follows the motion of my hand;
For some must follow, and some command,
Though all are made of clay!
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Keramos (l. 1)

The potter's wheel in myth and legend: The 'Potter's wheel' has many a myth and legend weaved around it. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the God Chnum was said to have formed the first humans on a potter's wheel.

Omar Khayyam (1048 - 1122), the great Persian mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and above all poet, wrote the following immortal lines in his 'Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam':

All this of Pot and Potter--Tell me then,
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?
- Omar Khayyam ('The Tent-Maker'),
The Rubaiyat (st. 87),
(translated by the English writer and poet Edward FitzGerald - 1809-1883)

Khayyam is thought to have been born into a family of tent makers (literally, al-khayyami means 'tent maker').

And Men Became The Potters: Until the arrival of the wheel, women usually made the pots - by coiling. But, with many other responsibilities they could only be part-time potters. With the invention of the wheel, men appeared to take over from their womenfolk the task of making pottery in most ancient cultures. The villages of the Near East were now growing into towns, and this resulted in more demand for pottery. Probably this need for increased pottery production proved impossible for the women to cater to what with their considerable commitments to child rearing, food preparation and other aspects of family life. Although one person could make pots more quickly with a wheel, still more full-time labour was required to decorate, finish and fire these increasing amount of pottery. Clearly, in all communities many people became full-time potters from the third millennium B.C. onwards.

It appears that predominantly 'Matriarchal' village societies gradually became dominantly 'Patriarchal' as bigger urban communities became more organised and complex. Looks like the 'humble' pottery shaped the future of communities and culture and by extension the world we inhabitate today. So, if any of us have any complaints we know whom to 'blame!' If only Shrub Jr. had known this!

I am extremely tempted to add a note on 'Kumartuli' or the 'Potters Town' of Kolkata.

Kumartuli, the nerve centre of the clay idol-makers of West Bengal, is home and workshop to more than one hundred and fifty families of clay model-makers. Criss-crossed by a maze of narrow gullies men, women, children and even the images of gods and goddesses, alike, have to find their way out through these dingy lanes.

Kumartuli, the clay model-makers haven, is older than Calcutta (now Kolkata), which grew out of three little villages, viz., Gobindapore, Kalikutta and Sutanooti way back in 1690. The history of the Kumartuli potter can be traced back to Krishnanagar in South Bengal. To begin with, around the middle of the seventeenth century, potters in search of better livelihood came from Krishnanagar to Gobindapore, a prosperous village on the banks of the river Bhagirathi (now the river Hooghly), to eke out a living by making earthen ware pots, clay toys and cooking utensils for household use. When the land at Gobindapore was acquired by the British East India company for building Fort William, the inhabitants migrated further up the river to Sutanooti. The potters moved in at their new destination, colonized a vast area and named it Kumartuli, the term 'kumar' meaning 'a potter' and 'tuli' - 'a locality.' 'The Bengal Consultations,' a journal dating back to 1707 AD, gives an account of the presence of 'Kumars' who occupied 75 acres of land in Sutanooti, which is a constituent part of present day north Kolkata.

Just where history ends and legend begins no one is quite sure. The lines get blurred. Kumartuli's clay model-makers claim their descent from people who made images of Durga for Maharaja Krishna Chandra of Krishnanagar. However, many historians are of the opinion that the ancestors of the artisans were potters who had drifted in during the days of the British Raj but the power of the legend still overwhelms the ordinary visitors.

Kumartuli, densely populated, is a hive of activity from June to the end of January as artisans get busy making scores of images for the annual autumnal festival - the Durga puja (followed by the Lakshmi puja and the Kali puja). A potters colony ever since its inception and a model-makers haven now, it is the home of the finest clay-artisans in India.

Thereafter, I proceeded to have a look at some of the items displayed at the makeshift stalls selling pottery items on the road - 'roadside pottery' or 'rasta pottery.' I decided to also have a look at the 'Chhattishgarh Handicraft Emporium' to make up for missing out on the exhibition on crafts from Chhattishgarh. Here, too there was a sale going on. So far so good! Or thats what I thought. Once inside, I discovered that it was entirely a handloom and dress material show, no craft items were on display. I spent some time admiring the handloom products - they were colourful stuffs with attractive designs/needlework on them, some had mirror-work on them. I had no plans to buy dress materials, hence proceeded to my other destination - to have a look at the roadside pottery.

I visited a place in R.T.Nagar. This was (wo)manned by a tribal lady from Rajasthan along with her family, her children to be more precise. The pottery items on display took my breathe away! There were decorative jars of all sizes, lamps or deepas, elephants of various shapes and colours, clay wind chimes, pots and decorative pots of various shapes, a figure of Lord Ganesh on a Peepal leaf, utensils used for cooking and other household use, mitti ka chulha (earthen stove), other decorative figures like a statue standing with folded hands (as if in a 'welcome' gesture) , the Chinese 'Happy Man' and of course the 'Bankura Ghoda.' These 'ghodas' too came in different sizes. I was relieved to see that they were without the 'golden touch', instead were in black, brick red and silver-white. I liked the silver-white ones but they was too big for my terrace garden, hence settled for the black one (there was only one horse in black) and another a brick-red one.

My quest for the elusive 'Bankura Ghoda' (Bankura Horse) has finally ended. Yippee! They now proudly stand on my garden, facing each other, one near the Almonda and pink Anthurium plants, the other near the majestic bird-of-paradise plant. I have named the black ghoda 'Black Beauty' and am still name-hunting for the brick-red one. Any suggestions?

I bought the statue standing with folded hands (as if in a 'welcome' pose) and this has found pride of place in front of the main door of my house on the second floor. Keeping these statues clean is no problem at all. We just pour water on them every morning while watering the plants. Talk about 'two in one' or better still 'two birds with one stone!'

This roadside stall also displayed 'POP' items. No, these have nothing to do with Michael Jackson or Britney Spears or Madonna or anyone of their ilk! These are articles made of 'Plaster of Paris'. No relation with 'Paris Hilton' either! Thankfully!

I was very impressed with these POP items too. On display were a pair of peacock, a pair of parrot, elephants of various sizes, flower vase and decoration vases of various sizes, the statue of a girl holding a rose, the Chinese 'Happy Man,' among others. I wanted to buy some elephant figures (two big ones and the others smaller in size, to denote a family of Mama and Papa elephants and kiddy elephants), couple of decoration vases and the statue of the girl holding a rose. We all have heard of 'The Lady with the Lamp,' I decided to call this girl 'The Girl with the Rose.' Lack of space in the vehicle I was travelling in prevented me from doing so, which necessitates yet another visit to this place in the near future.

Needless to say that I am actually looking forward to making another trip to this roadside stall selling pottery items, besides visiting other such stalls, as well as to the 'Pottery Town.' And I will do so shortly.

Let me end by borrowing another quote from the great Khayyam's 'Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam':

Said one among them: "Surely not in vain
My substance of the common Earth was ta'en
And to this Figure moulded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again."
- Omar Khayyam ('The Tent-Maker'),
The Rubaiyat (st. 84),
(translated by the English writer and poet Edward FitzGerald - 1809-1883)

Photograph: A 'Potters Wheel' rotates.


  1. Great post! Enjoyed reading it. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks Mahesh! Glad you liked it. :)

  3. Pottery is my passion! Good to hear more articles about pottery making. Keep posting!

  4. @ Claypot: Thanks much... and welcome to my blog :)