Milda Shylla has been moulding clay since she was a teen. She learnt to shape pots and pans with her bare hands from her mother. “It’s an art that is passed on by the mother to the daughter,” says Shylla, now in her 50s.
Her weathered hands tell the story of a rare form of pottery indigenous to the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. A resident of Tyrchang village, Shylla belongs to a community that has held on to the tradition of khiew ranei, or black clay pottery, for generations. It’s made by the women in the community, with clay endemic to the region. There is no potter’s wheel, so everything is handcrafted.
In Tyrchang and the adjoining village of Larnai, about 50-60km from Shillong, this form of pottery remains the lifeline of the local community even today. The time-tested process yields kettles, plates, cups, pitchers and pots for cooking, eating and storing food. “The work is tedious and demands long hours,” says Shylla. Armed with 40 years of experience, she can now judge the quality of the clay just by feeling it.
The artisans refuse to switch to a mechanised process, believing it will affect the quality of their wares. But like most other craft, their work too had begun to fade from view as modern-day utensils took over.
Two designers from the state were determined not to let this happen. In 2015, Ridahunlang Gatphoh and Peter Marbaniang set up a social enterprise, Dak_ti Craft, to help the community with design interventions, production and marketing. Gatphoh had studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bengaluru, and Marbaniang at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.
The growing realisation, during the pandemic, of the pleasures of slow cooking may be just the boost needed. “Since too much heat could break down the aromatic compounds, slow cooking in such cookware preserves them gently,” says Mumbai-based chef Amninder Sandhu.
There is no clear record of the origin of black clay pottery in the region. Most of the information comes from oral history, says Shillong-based archaeologist Naphibahun Lyngdoh, adding that The Khasis by Philip R.T. Gurdon, first published in 1907, has some references to the pottery. The British army officer and administrator writes about the potter community of Larnai in connection with the 1901 census. Gurdon also explains the process and says the cookware popular among the locals was typically a pot used to make fermented beverages. Lyngdoh speculates that the tradition dates back several centuries, as the ancestors of most families in the region worked with clay.
The raw material includes khyndew long, or black clay sourced from the nearby Sung valley, and khyndew khluit, or green serpentine stone. These are combined and pounded with a wooden implement. The women shape the cookware with their hands and dry the products in the sun. These are then kept on an open fire, where the temperature is maintained at around 1,000 degrees Celsius, for 9-10 hours. Once this is done, the items are transferred to a mixture, a natural dye of sorts, made of water and an extract from the bark of an indigenous tree called sohlia (Myrica nagi). This finishing polish gives it a distinct look and feel.
The work poses its own challenges. Since the clay is indigenous, it can only be used with permission from the clan chieftain. “We cannot buy it. Only he can pass it on to the community. Also, special care needs to be taken while digging out the clay so that it doesn’t cause any damage to the earth,” says Gatphoh. A single pot can take up to two weeks to make. Sometimes the weather plays spoilsport, with rain disrupting the drying process.
The most common black clay utensil in Khasi homes is the veiñ or saraw, a traditional pan with a small lid that rests inside the larger base. Veiñ is typically used to prepare a saucer-shaped steamed rice cake called putharo, which is served for breakfast or as a snack. They can be rolled up with tungrymbai, a pasty mishmash made of fermented soybean, or doh jem, usually cooked with pork offals and sesame seeds. “It is a filling, quick and affordable snack for many,” says Shillong-based home chef Rebecca Ranee.
IMPRESSIONS OF THE HAND
“There were many obstacles when we started working in these small clusters. But after hosting workshops, along with the artisans, outside the region, we realised there was a demand for this craft,” says Gatphoh.
The social enterprise works with around 25 women potters from Tyrchang and helps develop new products and processes. This allows them to build a catalogue for the domestic and international markets. Since production is slow and small-batch, the business model is to engage the artisans with orders through the year to ensure a steady income.
Dak_ti Craft, which purchases directly from the community and supplies to vendors, offers an eclectic range of cookware and serveware for the urban kitchen, for use on the gas stove as well as in the microwave. There are belly pots for cooking biryani and pulao, stout pots for making stews and soups, and shallow pans for frying. A select range is available at Paper Boat Collective in Goa, Obataimu in Mumbai and online at Ikai Asai.
In 2019, Duia Trailblazers, an eco-tourism company, joined the effort to keep the pottery tradition alive. It began organising heritage tours to Larnai, offering tourists a hands-on experience of mixing the clay, shaping, firing and polishing the final product. “As part of responsible tourism, we want the community to keep the tradition alive and not migrate to metros in search of jobs,” says founder Gerald Duia from Shillong. The pandemic may have stalled some of these plans—but they remain hopeful.
Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer