By Ron du Bois, Professor Emeritus, Oklahoma State University, U.S.A.
Bindapur is a village of 700 potters located on the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital city. Here are some of the nations one million seven hundred thousand potters, called kumbars.
This community has more than 200 houses of potters. It is devoid of modern facilities such as electricity, municipal water supply, paved roads or drainage system. The houses are one room shelters-which must provide space for both hearth and processed raw materials. The potters, like most Indian villagers, are usually illiterate. Their material surroundings are poor.
Bindapur, because of its proximity to a metropolitan area, is far larger than an average potters’ village. Although the entire cycle of production and sales is individualized, these villagers gain distinct advantages in the purchase of raw material and marketing through their centralized location.
Pottery completely dominates Bindapur’s economy. Houses are built of rejected water vessels, cracked during firing.
Inevitable casualties of the huge production of water vessels, these cracked jajars, become a valuable building material for the construction of well insulated walls.
Bindapur women draw their water from a central fountain. Before 1980 this pottery community did not exist. 75% of the potters migrated from Rajasthan, a neighboring “suate”, and 25% from village sections of the same state, attracted by Delhi’s large market potential. Thus they have broken generations of residential stability. Some families still own small holdings of land in their original. villages and move back during the agricultural season when the pulse of pottery slackens.
The process of migration has created a sharp break in the economic life of the Bindapur potters. From the traditional system of barter used in the villages, they have moved into the monetized economy and competitive market of an urban environment.
JAJARS, PRESS MOLDS, AND AERIAL COILS
Jarjars prior to firing.
Two molds are fitted together to form the body of a jarjar.
A variety of forms are used for carrying and storing water. Jajars are made from press molds. The molds are incised by the potters with a striking variety of traditional designs.
A variety of forms are used for carrying and storing water.
This jajar is made from press molds. Molds are incised by the potters with a striking variety of traditional designs. The production of jajars starts in early morning when clay discs are made and pressed into decorative press molds. These are used to form the top section of the vessel. In three hours, between 6 and 9 a.m., two potters…sometimes mother and daughter or husband and wife…work independently preparing circular slabs of clay. These are picked up and pounded into the top half of approximately 108 molds. They are then set aside to stiffen and will be taken up later.
In the next two hours, the same number of discs are prepared and pressed into the lower half of an equal number of undecorated press molds. The process takes little more than one minute per mold
Lunch, the first meal of the day is taken at 11 a.m. It consists of dhal (or lentils) and about 3-6 chipattis cooked on country stoves of clay…and fueled with prepared cakes of cow dung.
Flat surfaces, essential to the western method of rolling coils–do not exist in village India. Instead, the potter uses a system of aerial coil construction.
Coordination of the back and forth movement of the hands combined with an even opposing pressure of the bottom edges of the palms produces long even coils.
The third stage in making jajars consists of preparing long coils of clay. These are used to join the two forms together. The technique of producing “aerial coils” consists of moving the hands back and forth in such a way that the bottom edge of the palms exert an even opposing pressure on the clay.
The coil is applied to thicken the edge while the mold is rotated by a sure action of the potter’s right foot and toe.
The coil is applied to thicken the edge while the mold is rotated by a sure action of the potter’s right foot and toe. The two molds are now fitted together. The potter rotates the vessel with the left hand, while the right hand on the interior presses against the coil of clay previously added, thus thoroughly joining the two halves. To press a disc of clay into the bottom mold, trim the edges, join the two halves together, and set the whole aside, takes one and 1/2 minutes.
Later-the bottom mold is removed-allowing the clay to become “leather hard”. Then the top mold is removed and the vessel turned right side up. The neck less, leather-hard forms are carried to the potter’s wheel where they are rapidly centered. Before spinning the wheel the potter forms rings from wads of clay.
Forming the neck of the jarjar.
Positioned around the center opening, the potter spins the wheel –then takes 25 seconds to throw the clay rings to a finished neck form.
It takes one and 1/2 minutes to center the jajar on the wheel, place the clay ring on the neck, spin the wheel, form the neck and remove the vessel from the wheel. Before the day is done, the family will set aside 108 finished jajars to further stiffen overnight… and to dry completely the following day. The wall thickness of the jajars is about 1/4 of an inch…its thinness contributing to rapid drying. The metallic color on the top half of the vessel derives from pulverized mica dusted on the top half of the press mold. Primarily decorative, it also prevents the soft clay from sticking to the mold.
Press molds also-are used to make “surahis”, a vessel for serving water. These are often fired as blackware.
To fire blackware, cotton waste brought in from outside the village is used as a fuel. It is more expensive than other fuels like sawdust costing eight rupees per firing… but the potters believe it produces better carbonization and richer blacks.
The potters bring baskets of cotton waste and spread it on the bottom of the “madani”…the open field firing system which has been used in India for thousands of years.
Four unsuccessful or “waster” “surahis” from a previous firing are placed in the center of the “maidani”. This is the first tier of what will become an open shaft, through which-burning dung will be dropped to ignite the ground layer of cotton waste.
About 100 to 125 vessels are next placed upright to form a concentric pattern. Another one hundred vessels turned upside down are supported by the vertical necks of the first tier.
The waste product of India’s ubiquitous cattle serve as fuel for village India. Called “gobar”, it is mixed with straw. Women pat it into flat cakes, then slap them against a wall to dry in the sun. When dry and ready to be used as fuel, the prepared cow dung is called “upala”.
Cakes of “upala” are placed on the feet of the inverted ceramic vessels. Then two tiers are laid sideways in a concentric pattern around the central shaft and topped with “upala”. This is repeated twice more until a total of eight tiers and four layers of cow dung cakes are stacked.
Next “upala” is placed in a leaning position around the entire circumference of the “maidani”. About 175 pounds of “upala” are used for the firing, at a cost in 1980 of 12 rupees, i.e., one and one half U.S. dollars.
The “maidani” is now covered with pot shards which help to contain the heat during the firing. Next, rice straw is spread over the maidani, then covered with clay slurry and a layer of dry ash. The clay and ash form a crust to seal in most of the heat during the firing. A space around the bottom left free of clay and ash allows entry of air for combustion. The combustion spreads slowly until the cakes of dung around the perimeter are ignited.
At 9:30 a.m. the following morning, as parts of the clay and ash crust begin to fall away, the potters know the firing is completed in this section. To close the breaks cotton flax is thrown in, then ash from previous firings is shoveled over the flax to seal the carbon. The process is continued for about two hours, with the whole family pitching in. All breaks are repaired as they occur until most of the surface are covered with a final layer of moist ash. Air is sealed out, little or no fuel remains inside. Before noon, sawdust and cotton waste are thrown into each shaft the smoke producing a black surface coloration. The shafts are sealed with ash and the process of carbonization is completed.
It takes two days for the pots to cool sufficiently so that the maidani can be opened and the vessels removed.
These surahi are considered a luxury item. Thus they can be sold at higher prices than pots fired in regular firing. Surahi are placed in the living area and used to pour water for guests. When water is poured rather than dipped from large jars, it is considered more prestigious and polite.
These potters are Hindus and part of a caste which includes masons, farm hands, and cigarette sellers. It is part of their duty as Hindus to follow the values of their caste. Thus Hinduism has favored the hereditary maintenance of vocation. Indian potters, however, have been hard hit by the decline of traditional forms of patronage, of hereditary services to court and temple. Changes in land tenure have also resulted in the decline of traditional payments in the form of shares from the harvest.
Fatigue is a constant complaint among the Bindapur villagers. They are at work before 7 a.m. and often work into the night. The potters have no regular work week. They work every day except holidays. They celebrate “holy”, a joyous festival held to recreate Krishna’s love play with a group of milkmaids. It is the only day of the year when disrespect can be shown to an employer, teacher, wife or husband. After a period of fun when the social bonds are loosened, people get dressed up and go worship at the temple.
Ceremonies associated with birth, death, marriage and puberty draw the potters away from work. At other times work is stopped because astrological signs are inauspicious, for example when there is an eclipse of the sun. Such respites soon end, however, and these villagers rarely escape the piles of drying clay which dot the landscape.
In 1980 the potters paid a minimum of 120 rupees, or $ 15 U.S. dollars, for a truck load of chikni mitti, a grey-tan clay with good plasticity. The clay is dug, delivered and unloaded by truck wallahs, contractors and specialists in the work.
One method of clay preparation produces a smooth levigated clay. The pulverized clay is transformed into slurry and screened into a trough to settle. The top layer of water is removed and the middle layer of slurry is poured onto clean ground to sun dry to the plastic stage.
A second method is less time consuming but requires a better quality of clay. When the delivered clay is thoroughly dried, it is spread on clean ground. The women in each family are responsible for pulverizing the clay chunks with a mallet or stick. This accomplished, water is poured over the course clay particles and immediately wedged in to balls about 30 pounds in weight. Indian potters are not concerned with the trapping of air during the wedging process. All pots with few exceptions will be beaten, a process that thoroughly compresses and expels all trapped air.
The wedged balls are then thrown together to form solid mounds of clay, about three feet in height. Within 24 hours the moisture will penetrate and soften the course particles of clay.
To further mix and compensate for lack of screening, the clay is sliced with a wire, then wedged again. Inspection of all parts of the clay mass is made possible by a process in which the heel of the hand quickly “sheers” layers of clay. The potter spots all impurities visually and picks them out. The clay is then rewedged without concern for trapped air.
LARGE WATER VESSELS OR “GOALS”
The potters make large water vessels or “goals”, using a combination of throwing and beating techniques. This combination is one of the most interesting and typical features of Indian pottery manufacture
All potters use the socketed block wheel. The wheel is twirled counter clockwise with a bamboo turning stick. The throwing head is made of either stone, or more recently, cement. Each house has two or three wheels, each costing in 1980 between 150 and 200 rupees, or $18 to $25 U.S. dollars. Throwing and beating are among the most laborious parts of the potters work. In Bindapur it is exclusively men’s work. The momentum of the wheel depends on the weight of the throwing head and the strength and skill of the individual potter.
Some water jars are made by throwing an initial cone of clay.
Initially thrown as a truncated cylinder with a mouth about 4 inches in diameter, the potter leaves a thick layer of clay at the bottom. Potters throw about 50 cylinders in one afternoon.
Left overnight to stiffen, they are ready for beating the next morning. The beating is done in four or five stages.
STAGES OF BEATING
In stage one-the soft leather hard thrown forms are moved to a fired clay base form, called an athura. The thick bottom is rolled on the athura.
The potter begins the beating using the flat surface of the paddle. Inside the vessel, the potter holds an anvil or “pindy“. The potter concentrates on thinning out the thick lower wall of the thrown form. The sequence of “beats” proceeds from base to shoulder, both pindy and paddle exerting an equal opposing force.
Using the anvil and “pindy” to form the vessel.
The paddle is made of thick wood, flat on one side, concave on other side matching the curvature of the anvil.
In stage two, the potter beats rapidly for one minute to expand and thin the wall of the upper belly and shoulder. In the third stage, the potter reverses the paddle so that the concave surface faces the vessel. The curve of both anvil and paddle now closely match the round surface of the vessel. The potter takes about five minutes to further expand and thin the wall. The vessel is then lifted, the soft clay often buckling, and carried to the yard where it is placed ln a supporting form made from a previously fired vessel to further stiffen. Within a total of ten minutes the potter has completed three of the four stages of beating.
During the fourth stage the potter holds his anvil or “pindy” by its knob and inserts it inside the vessel. Imperfections, often caused by air trapped in the ‘clay, may cause fissures in the form’s surface. These can be repaired by the skillful potter by judicious beating.
The potter must judge the proper moisture content of the clay in order to successfully complete the final beating. Judged sufficiently stiff, the vessel is removed from its supporting form and returned to the “athura”. Again the action of the anvil on the inside and the paddle on the outside bring the vessel to its final shape. This final beating requires about 2 and 1/2 minutes and is essential to achieve a well shaped globular form.
A fifth and final treatment is used by many potters. After the final beating the mouth of the pot is sealed by a fired clay lid. The pot is then lifted and firmly jerked, causing the air pressure to expand and further perfect the shape. This technique is peculiar to potters of the North-western region of India.
The sequence of beating is very rapid…about four opposing strikes per second…so that the largest thrown form can be expanded dramatically in one minute.
This process of beating transforms the initially wheel formed cylinders to three times their original size, results in globular forms of great beauty. It is the result of a well-defined process which is more or less followed by all the potters of India.
GEOMETRIC SIGNS, RITUAL DESIGNS, FIELDS OF ENERGY
The beaten forms are next allowed to dry. For decoration potters use a slip made of a boiled solution of five parts red ochre, one part acacia leaves, and one part caustic soda. This slip contributes to a partial sealing of the surface, but its main purpose is visual and psychological. Without it, the fired surface would be rough and plaid in color.
Embellishment of the vessel
Plain and embellished “goals” or water vessels.
The application of slip strengthens visual impact and provides a magic ground for the application of “geometricity signs.” With a brush made of donkey or horse hair, every woman is able to create geometric designs.
Because they are not permitted to use the potter’s wheel women must use other means for banding. Sometimes the base of the vessel is simply placed on an inverted bowl. The potter then presses down on the clay lid to spin the vessel with a single twist of the left hand.
The surface of the pot is first brushed with multiple continuous horizontal lines separating it into bands or panels. White slip is prepared from calcium carbonate, while black colorant is prepared from sintered manganese dioxide boiled with gum.
Geometricity possesses vital force. Single and double wavy lines, loop patterns, pairs of strokes, double spirals as well as bird and fish symbols follow the initial straight line banding.
Although many of the methods embellishment and brush work vary from potter to potter, each moves her arm freely in to execute larger designs and uses her side as a support for short mincing strokes.
Ritual diagrams welcome the dawn, invoke a god, or dispel untoward forces…they are at once decoration and ritual, bringing beauty of form in endless variety. Traditional Hindus feel decorated surfaces exert a ”field of energy…thus keeping untoward forces at bay.
The average consumer is unable to pay for the labor necessary to burnish and carefully decorate. Under present conditions the work must be done quickly and sold at a competitive price. An exception to this is the “chattee” or milk vessel. These are really commercial vessels sold to shopkeepers rather than private persons. Because they are on display, they command a higher price –and the women can afford to carefully burnish and decorate.
There is no opportunity for outstanding embellishment, however. To create superior products for which the potter has no market would spell ruination. Yet a skilled potter does not make haste in brush decoration. Each line is drawn slowly, carefully, and painstakingly and with a precision born of long practice.
The goals (gols), picked up and carried to the kiln (bhati ) are passed to the potter who stacks them in the kiln floor in a circular pattern.
KILN (BHATI ) CONSTRUCTION AND FIRING
Bhati or kiln prior to loading.
The kiln or bhati , built close to the dwelling of each pottery family, is a cylindrical ‘structure about 6-7 feet in height.
Since potters are paid by the kiln load all Bindapur kilns are built to the same dimensions. The potters build their own kilns using 600-700 bricks, broken shards, and clay. The cost of construction materials for the kiln in 1980 was between 600-800 rupees or $75 to $100 U.S. not including labor.
The wall thickness of the “goals” is not more than 1/4 inch, yet support the weight of a hefty potter who must stand on them to fill the kiln. The traditional method of closing the kiln is to carefully overlap sections of broken shard. Nowadays scraps of sheet metal are used as covering material.
At present the potter’s high initial investment in the kiln as well as general poverty prevents experimentation with either new kiln design or improved designs of existing kilns.
Kilns are designed to use sawdust as fuel. Ten bags of sawdust, bought in by camel pulled carts, are needed to fire a kiln. Normally the cost is 10 rupees a bag, but during the peak season sawdust becomes scarce and the price rises to l2 rupees. At present the potters have no methods to buy or store sawdust when the supply is good and when the prices are lowest.
As firing commences, the potter creates a low temperature inside the kiln with sawdust sprinkled on burning cow dung. This completely dries the greenware vessels. During the peak season of summer the firing continues into the night.
The potters must throw handfuls of sawdust continuously for a period of four or five hours. As the temperature rises the heat and dust make the job unbearable. To continue firing, family members relieve each other at ten minute intervals.
Unlike the open field system of firing which proceeds on its own, the bhati must be tended every moment.
At present the potters are limited to the lowest firing temperatures. Combustion of hand thrown sawdust is inefficient compared to western methods of power injection of sawdust. Temperatures can never exceed 1200 to 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, i.e., bonfire temperatures.
Fired in the evening a kiln can be unloaded the next morning. The quick cooling cycle of the “bhati” is an advantage relative to the two days firing necessary for large open field firing.
The pots, tossed out of the “bhati” with seeming carelessness, are caught with assurance and stacked on the ground in preparation for loading. The payment in 1980 for the fired contents of one kiln is 300 rupees, or $37 U.S. dollars. Of this 143 rupees, almost $18 U.S. dollars must be deducted for the cost of clay, sawdust, colorants, and loss through breakage, leaving a final profit of 157 rupees –less than 20 U.S. dollars in 1980.
Since the kilns are fired on the average of every eight days the average daily return per family is about is about eighteen rupees, i.e., 2.35 U.S. dollars, Given the average family size, this would produce an average daily wage of less than five rupees or under 60 U.S. cents. The pots are sold to private merchants who send lorries or carts to the colony.
Difficult as it is, their work is considered sacred, with certain tasks ordained by Hindu law. Only men are allowed to throw at the stick-turned stone wheels; only women decorate the ware with prescribed religious symbols. The potter’s art is not conceived of as an accumulated skill but rather a direct intervention by the divine being.
A 30 minute educational documentary in DVD format, “Bindapur: A Colony of 700 Potters” is available for purchase.