Saima Shafi is a civil engineer in the Public Works Department of Jammu and Kashmir but she is better known as 'Kral Koor', Kashmiri for 'potter girl' in the valley. She is doing the task of bringing a centuries-old tradition back to modern Kashmiri kitchens—use of earthen utensils—thanks to a school in Bengaluru.
The 32-year-old's journey into pottery was a means to escape depression. She quotes Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, "We shape clay into a pot but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want."
"That's where I decided to store my depression," she says.
Shafi's fascination with clay goes back to her childhood. "I actually wanted to do something different. Since my childhood, I have been fascinated with toys made of clay, so I decided to become a potter," says Shafi, who is at present posted in a village in south Kashmir.
When she embarked on this journey, she faced several hurdles. "I realised that one needed to be financially sound to get modern equipment required for pottery." This included an electrical potter wheel and a gas kiln which is used for baking, neither of which is available in the valley. She was completely reliant on e-commerce platforms for sourcing the equipment.
"I had to transport it to Kashmir. I had to resurrect the entire inner wall of my kiln after getting refractory bricks and shelves of ceramic tiles from Chennai," she says. And all the efforts were made at a time when Kashmir was getting internet at 2G speed.
And then there was another issue—utensils made from terracotta clay, which is the only kind of clay available in Kashmir, should not be used in the microwave. "However, Haryana has a stoneware clay which is moulded on the potter wheel and the utensils made from it can even be used in microwave ovens," she says.
As pottery teachers are not common in the valley, Shafi's search for one led her to Bengaluru. There, she took a crash course in the art of moulding clay into various shapes, including traditional Kashmiri utensils used in the kitchen.
"The people at the institute were quite thrilled to know that a girl from far away Kashmir, and that too a civil engineer, is interested in pottery," she says. The experience was amazing as she saw girls as young as six to a 70-year-old woman learning the art.
"These students were planning to open their studio, which meant that these women were not learning pottery as a hobby but also to earn their livelihood and become entrepreneurs in various parts of the country," says Shafi.
She rues the fact that there is no proper institution or training school to keep the art form alive in the valley. She hopes to one day set up her own institute where she would guide the potter community of Kashmir and recalls late President A P J Abdul Kalam's words, "Dream is not that which you see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep."
"The art is dying because of lack of financial viability. The new generation of potters refuse to take to the wheels because they are unaware of changed and advanced techniques of this art," she says, while sitting in her studio located in the interiors of uptown Batmaloo.
After work and on weekends, Shafi frequents places within the valley, which were known for pottery a few decades ago. "All these years, they have been looked down upon. Finding an educated woman engaged in pottery makes them hopeful about their skill slowly getting the respect it deserves," she says.