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Kumhar Gram: A Song of Earth and Fire

The potters' village in Delhi's Uttam Nagar is keeping Indian craftsmanship alive

Harkishan Prajapati at his wheel. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Harkishan Prajapati at his wheel. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Though it might be called Kumhar Gram, or potters’ village, its operations run like clockwork with the industrial efficiency of a large city. A dense patchwork of brick houses and workshops, India’s largest potters’ colony is nestled deep inside Uttam Nagar in south-west Delhi. It’s been home to over 400 potter families since the early 1970s, producing handcrafted earthernware that is sold across the country and around the world.

Sculptures being given a finishing touch.

It is accessed through a serpentine route which exposes one to, in no particular order, dirt, construction dust, cowpats, narrow alleys strewn with garbage and a constant stream of cars, motorbikes and e-rickshaws whizzing past. But on entering the colony, the din subsides. Horns become distant, the street plan is straightforward, mini trucks and rickshaws quietly go in and out carrying goods. No one can afford to waste time. There is work to be done.

The village is preparing for Diwali. A month before the festival, wholesalers from across India descend on this small colony to buy diyas, surahis, pots, urulis (water vessel) and ornamental vases. The colony’s small size belies its prodigious output and a walk through the village reveals how the potter families manage this feat.

‘Urulis’ and water goblets.

One main street runs across the length of the village and mini alleys run perpendicular to it, cutting through at regular intervals. The main street is dotted with shops selling earthenware on either side and the shopfronts conceal potters’ homes. A glance through the displayed goods might reveal a lone potter at his wheel, or a woman preparing clay. But to see the hive of activity in the open, one must turn into one of these narrow lanes.

More potter homes line the alley on either side and mounds of raw clay lie on the streets. Every mound belongs to a particular family. The houses are mostly double-storeyed and almost all have a kiln, either inside or jutting out of a higher floor. The potters’ wares spill out on the streets, where they are left in the open to dry, even through the night. A potter remarked that the village has “never seen a case of theft".

Raw clay being pounded.

Women sit beside the mounds pounding the raw clay with wooden sticks to remove lumps and give it a more powdery texture. This is the first stage of the process and is traditionally performed by the women in the family. The wheel is reserved for the man, but this is changing. After mixing it with water, and achieving the elusive right consistency, the clay is run through the ingenious contraption called pugmill. Its name, derived from the Hindi word pug, meaning foot, points to the earlier practice of using one’s feet to do the same job. It is fed the moist clay from one end, and it comes out from the other end as “smooth as silk", says 31-year-old Dharam Pal, a second-generation potter. It transforms the clay by lending it evenness and a smooth texture, making it easier to work with on the wheel. At this point, a more scrupulous potter would knead the clay to remove further impurities, like tiny stones, but for many it is ready to meet its maker: the potter.

The Shilp Guru

Harkishan Prajapati is the one name everyone in the village recognizes. The National Award winning potter and the pradhan (head) of the village was among the first potters to move here in the early 1970s. While the first families came from the drought-prone Alwar in Rajasthan in search of better prospects, Harkishan hails from a village in Haryana. Bespectacled and wearing a loose white vest—attire suited to comfortably operating the potter’s wheel–he is concerned about the fate of the village. “We’re losing this knowledge," he says, as he sits down cross-legged at his wheel. He throws a big lump of moist clay on the wheel and looks up. “The youngsters from the village would rather find a job outside than work with clay here. Many are setting up shops outside and turning into traders from craftsmen. I worry about this craft, which is thousands of years old."

On the fast-rotating wheel, Prajapati begins to centre the clay—the first and the most important step—by pressing firmly at its base and running his hand to the top, shaping it into a cone while constantly moistening it. To uninitiated eyes, a potter at work is no less than an alchemist as the objects seem to emerge from the invisible recesses of the potter’s hand. “It’s all in the fingertips," says Prajapati, as he fashions a micro diya out of the spinning clay, cuts it off with a thread and holds it in his left hand. “The difference between a skilful potter and a mediocre one is all in the pressure of the fingertips." Dipping the nail of his little finger, almost imperceptibly, to shape the diya’s recognizable mouth, he says with a smile, “This is art. There are potters here who make 4,000 diyas a day and sell it at dirt-cheap prices. The traders then sell it at a huge margin." Prajapati disregards quantity for quality, and tells them, “Let’s charge more, but make the best quality work."

Ramrati decorating painted ‘diyas’.

For a family of modest means, however, the work is relentless. They can only make a living if every member of the family plays a role. “Earlier women only used to prepare the clay and embellish dried pieces, but increasingly they can be found at the wheel," says Prajapati, whose own wife, Ramrati, received a National Award in 2015 for a large decorative terracotta pot. He is now a Shilp Guru, an honour conferred by the Union government on a master craftsperson.

Prajapati feels there is a big difference between the perception of pottery in India and abroad. To showcase Indian craft abroad, he’s been on government-sponsored tours to the US, Germany, Spain and Japan. “They value handicrafts," he says. “Here, if I do a demonstration at a fair, Indians would walk by, pick up the object and say, ‘Can I take this’?" In contrast, he’s reminded of a German man who bought every single one of his objects on display. What might explain the difference in attitude, I ask. “Today, the developed world really values the handmade and the handcrafted, as they have been overexposed to the industrial, the high-tech and the manufactured. But potters here would sell their handmade wares by the roadside for Rs200." Not many potters in the colony know the value of their craft and are reluctant to learn new techniques, he feels, considering the profession merely manual labour.

Women collecting kiln-fired ‘diyas’.

Smoke with fire

The village is a close-knit community and the villagers go a long way to help each other in any circumstance, even financially. Most of them are reluctant to approach the government for loans and subsidies, for fear of debt. But recently the NGO South Asia Foundation (unrelated to the similarly named Unesco project) has made some headway with a few initiatives: providing free electric wheels, registering potters with the government to directly avail any future relevant schemes and providing grants for international cultural fairs. The readiness of the established potters to assist the novices and better market conditions have drawn more potters from around India, making the village one of the largest potter settlements in Asia.

But there lurks an existential threat to the colony. The 400-odd wood-fired kilns in every house give out black smoke and recently caught the attention of the National Green Tribunal, when the neighbours from the adjoining colony brought a case against the potters for “pollution". With Delhi being in the eye of the storm in the country’s pollution crisis, the potters’ colony with its visible smoke is an easy scapegoat, thinks Kalu Ram, whose house stands at the edge of the village, facing a residential colony. “The only thing burnt for fuel here is wood and sawdust, and there are no chemicals in our smoke, as many claim." Kalu Ram has been working for 25 years here. “Day and night we’re exposed to this smoke, wouldn’t we have terrible diseases if this was really pollution?" he asks. Could gas or electric kilns replace the wood-fired kilns in the village? “The people here have no means to get gas kilns, not without financial support from the government. And if they just move us to another place, say Haryana or Rajasthan, people there will complain about the same thing," says Kalu. The case is ongoing.

The fate of the potters’ village may be uncertain, but its streets give no hint of untoward upheaval. Diwali is their biggest sale season every year and the pace of work is frenetic, as apart from catering to the Indian market they also export diyas to countries with a large Indian diaspora: Australia, the UK, Canada and Singapore. Throughout the year, they make water vessels, decorative bowls, showpieces and even pots for nurseries. For Diwali, however, Lakshmi and Ganesh figurines, along with diyas in myriad shapes, sizes and colours are in high demand and the potters can make anywhere between Rs500-2,000 a day, which drops to Rs400-1,000 in the off-season.

Night falls as I make my way out of the village. The kilns are firing in every street, and will burn through the night, their bright orange hues lighting up the dark alleys. Every household, for now, is racing to finish orders.

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