Pottery- A Dying Profession


 Kalaghatagi taluk all set to bid farewell to the potter’s wheel as steel and plastic pots gain popularity

In a narrow lane in Jaudaduni, Kalaghatagi, 23 year old Srikant Kotagunasi is sitting on a small pillar next to his house, reading a newspaper. His 55 year old father is walking in and out of a house opposite to theirs, his shirt torn in places with a few stains of clay on it. Srikant is a potter’s son but unlike his friends who have long forsaken the profession, he feels a deep attachment towards the profession that has been practiced by his forefathers. He is currently studying B.Tech Engineering in a college in Dharwad and has come home to spend some time with his family. Rajesh Kotagunasi, Srikant’s father smiles at the camera and motions us to follow him.

The house is small so we have to slightly bend; he takes us through a narrow lane where we are accompanied by his younger children. We soon reach an open wide space where an aged woman is sitting on the floor surrounded by clay plates and glasses. She introduces herself as Renavva Kotagunasi. Srikant tells us that she wants to show us the making of these clay utensils. We are then taken to another shed with a potter’s wheel in the middle. I walk in along with five children who have now decided to follow me, one of them carrying a one year old in her arms. She rests the baby on a stack of hay and joins us. Srikant’s father makes a pot for me to record on my camera. He asks his son to take over as he slips aside when the frame is made. Srikant however, laughs nervously at the camera and tries his best to make the perfect pot. He keeps his hand on the mould that is still taking shape. Srikant realises he cannot do it perfectly and glances at his father who then takes over the wheel and completes the pot as my camera records the failure of a generation to perfect an art that has been running in the family for decades.

Pottery: A dying profession in Kalaghatagi

Rajesh Kotagunasi tells me that his family is one of the few families that still survive on pottery.  “It is hard work and the pay is extremely low, but we have been potters for the longest time so we cannot change our profession. I have sent my son to school so he can work in Dharwad. I don’t want him to be a potter”. But Srikant has a mind of his own; he tells me that he wants to take his father’s work in the city where he hopes to make profits. “No matter where I get employed and how far I go, I will always be a potter before anything else”. Apart from clay pots, Rajesh also makes chulhas, diyas and plates which help the family survive. “Only a fool will depend on pottery for survival”, laughs Rajesh, but there is no humour in his laughter. He is laughing at his own misery.

He admits that he feels shameful that he himself has asked his son to switch to another profession. “There was a time when we were proud of our profession but now people feel bad for us because we are potters”.

I ask Srikant why he wishes to hold on to his father’s profession to which he replies that it is not really about pottery as a profession but more about his family roots. “There are many in this village who have foresaken pottery because it does not pay well. But a kumhar cannot severe ties with the land that has for so long fed them. It is a really bad time for potters now but instead of leaving the profession and insulting our motherland we should think of ways to improve the situation for potters.”

In a Taluk of 1, 54,659 people, there is just two families of potters left. Srikant recalls that even a few years back there were about 13 families. “All of them have moved to other professions because they could not support their families by selling pots.”

Shivappa, another potter from Jaudaduni talks about the Kotagunasis as he says, “There is just another family of potters apart from us. In the Tuesday Bazaar, our stalls are always empty. Nobody buys clay pots these days. We only earn enough to feed ourselves. We don’t even have enough to send our children to school.”

The grass is greener on this side of the fence:

Far from the madding crowd, the city dwellers cannot get enough of pottery. Working with clay is a fashion statement and youngsters are getting enrolled into pottery workshops to learn the art and to fight anxiety and stress.

Ganesan Manickavasagam, Director of Clay Station Art Studios, Bangalore said, “We have around 500 to 600 students every year. Some of them even take up pottery as a profession.”

The students at Clay Station pay an annual fee of Rs 4,000 to enrol themselves. Manickavasagam adds that some of them even go on to start their own pottery classes. “Pottery is very popular in the city with more and more people going organic and realizing the benefits of drinking water from clay pots”, he said.

Social Impact:

Rajesh Kotagunasi tells me that many of his friends have changed their profession and introduces me to a few of them. A tall lean man with a laptop bag on his shoulder introduces himself as Sharanappa. He says, “Pottery is now a profession for only those who can afford to incur the losses” adding that he is now working for a meat seller. Sharanappa tells me that he would formerly make Rs 300 a month and would have to struggle to take care of his parents, wife and two children. “You cannot feel emotionally about a profession which does not let you take care of your family”, he says. Things however have changed now that he is working for the meat seller. He gets a sum of Rs 800 a month and his family is better off. He also tells me that he is not the only one to have changed his profession and takes me to Umesh B Chikkanavvar, who has a grocery store and a truck parked in the garage of a one storey building. Umesh, a 48 year old father of two stands outside his grocery shop with his wife and tells me that pottery is the worst profession in the Taluk because no one buys clay pots anymore. “Even potters use plastic pots to store water, the arrival of German plastic have left many people jobless here. We have also faced a lot of problems in finding wood for the kiln” he says. Umesh is happy with his grocery store and has a comfortable living by renting out his truck too.

Rajesh asks me to meet him on the Tuesday Bazaar which is a very important occasion for all small entrepreneurs and sellers. The Tuesday Bazaar opens at 11 o’ clock in the morning and goes on till 4 o’ clock in the afternoon. People set up their stalls on the road outside their homes and villagers from all over the Taluk come to the market to make their purchase. I walk up to the stall set up by Rajesh which is fairly empty as compared to the other stalls. He tells me that he has not sold a single item since the morning but is hopeful to at least sell some chulhas, but as the day progresses, this hope too, is lost.

Nagappa, a chulha maker at Thumarikoppa village near Begur, tells me that he has long stopped making pots of clay. Now, he solely relies on chulhas for a living. He tells me that he has a 24 year old son who is doing B.Tech engineering and will most probably settle in Dharwad. “I will not allow my son to take up this profession. It is hard work without proper pay,” he adds.

Use of Plastic Pots to Store Water:

Plastic pots are widely used in the taluk to store water because they are not only durable but are also cheaper and readily available.

Health Concern:

On my way back from Jaudaduni I meet Vijay Wadekar, a 35 year old Konkani shopkeeper selling grocery items. I ask him where he stores his water and he shows me a steel pot. “I actually store water in clay pots at home but in the store, I keep it in steel pots because clay pots might break.” “I used plastic pots before, but the pot starts smelling after two days and I would frequently get headaches and nausea when I drank water from these pots.”

Praveen, who owns a rather large shop welcomes me inside and shows me the array of colourful plastic pots in his shop. He tells me that each plastic pot costs Rs 70 and lasts for almost two years.

Environmental Risks:

Rama Rauta, Advisor for Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation said, “As per my observation, plastic has a slow and steady affect on the environment. Many people use plastic bottles, pouches, bags to store water and they all go into the sea. Storing water in plastic definitely has harmful effects but we should also look at packaging food products in plastic. All these plastic wastes are then carelessly disposed off. If you go to rural areas you will see that the plastic pots are just left outside after use.”

Steel Pots and Clay Pots:

Suresh, a shopkeeper selling steel pots and glasses invites me in and shows me the various kinds of utensils that he sells. He tells me that a steel pot costs around Rs 170 if it is a big one. The minimum price of steel pots is somewhere around Rs 80 to 120.

Ravi Kalaghatagi, another auto driver tells me that in reality steel pots cost more than the clay ones, but they are more durable and last longer.

Vijay Wadekar, tells me that fifty per cent of the people in the Taluk use plastic pots and a majority of the remaining use steel pots to store water. “The people here are not aware of the dangers of storing water in plastic hence they use what is readily available to them. Clay pots are only available in Kalaghatagi so the people in Begur and other villages have to travel all the way to Kalaghatagi if they want to buy clay pots, on the other hand, plastic pots are sold by shopkeepers on cycles almost every day”, he adds.

Nagappa, of Thumarikoppa village notes, “The sale of pots has gone down because of a number of factors. First of course is the popularity of German plastic which is cheaper by at least Rs 80. We have also been compelled to increase the price of clay pots because the wood for the fire is very difficult to get.” He added, “My forefathers have all been potters but I have been forced to give up on pottery. My family now solely survives on the chulhas that I make.”

The increasing use of plastic to store water is not only endangering a whole generation who are unaware of the harmful effects of pottery but is also rapidly obliterating a social class that was previously recognised as “potters”. The potters of Kalaghatagi are dreading the day when they will no longer need the wheel that has become a part of their family.

Pottery in the city:

Talking about the potters of Kalaghatagi the Director of Clay Station said, “The artisans of rural Karnataka are finding it difficult to remain in this profession because they are not upgrading themselves. In Bangalore there are many new micro pottery industries which have modern facilities and as a result have better productivity. When we talk about upgrading it means using proper fuel, and the right equipments.”

“For the artisans it is now diffcult to sustain because it is difficult to get wood for the kiln but they cannot increase the price of the pots hence their profit margin goes down. Some of the potters in the rural areas decide to sell their work in the city through a middleman who keeps 80 per cent of the profit for himself. At Clay Station, we have a proper way to bake the clay. The clay is refined and the stones are removed from the clay which leads to very fine quality pots. Also, we use electric kiln which is operationally very cheap, good and affordable, also there is no labour involved in the baking of the clay”, he added.

Pottery as a therapeutic measure:

A New York Times article talks about the stress relieving effects of clay adding that creating something from scratch can give a sense of fulfilment to patients suffering from clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Psychologist Rita Bandhyopadhyay who said, “There are various ways of treating depression based on the personality traits of an individual. Pottery is one such measure which is quite effective in the treatment of patients having anxiety disorders or hyperactivity. Pottery requires patience and has a soothing effect on patients”.

The Solution:

Rajesh Kotagunasi and his son Srikant are hopeful that they will be able to market their products better due to the wide reach of the internet. Srikant says that people will soon realise the health hazards of drinking water from plastic pots. He also plans to get in touch with handicraft sellers in Bangalore city. But he is determined that he will not give up on the profession and will make sure it gets the recognition that it deserves.

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