THE DYING ART OF POTTERY IN KASHMIR

  • MUNEEB YOUSUF & SHAHBAZ SIDIQUEE
  • Publish Date: Dec 9 2018 12:07PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 9 2018 12:08PM
THE DYING ART OF POTTERY IN KASHMIRPhoto: Kashmir Ink

From the heart of Kulgam town emanates a macadamized road, serpentine in direction passing through residential colonies and apple orchards reaching an old village called Wukai. As the vehicle steadily enters into the territory of Wukaii village popularly referred as ‘OK’ (Wukai rhymes with OK), old mud houses with thatched roofs along with concrete buildings appear on the scene. A couple of shops having traditional wooden shutters selling Kangris face gigantic chinar tree whose foliage has turned breathtaking with autumn’s advent. Behind the shops live nearly three dozen families associated with occupation of pottery.

The families are on the verge of breaking their knot with age old profession that they happily inherited from their forefathers. The profession that involves family members of all type irrespective of gender and age is proving incapable of providing two meals a day–– forcing them to look for alternative source of earning. They are going through what Joseph Schumpeter calls creative destruction where machine made goods coupled with fancy advertisement has resulted in destruction of market for pottery goods, thereby affecting livelihood of traditional artisans. An abject poverty reflects from their houses with windows yet to be installed among many. In the window casket of several houses rests considerable amount of firewood possibly kept for igniting the ovens.

The circular shaped ovens in which fragile clay utensils are baked have been reduced to dustbins by Kumar families. How could someone do this to their profession? A profession that remained a hallmark of Kashmiri culture and a means of sustenance for several people is dying a slow death. A range of earthen made kitchenware used to be a woman’s dream and one used to find significant number of such items occupying kitchen shelves. From storage to eating and drinking, a potter had a solution for every necessity with, importantly, no harmful effects. With modern tastes sweeping all across, the earthen-made items have become a thing of past. The modern trend of embracing items of plastic, aluminum, steel and bone-china has far-reaching captivating power and the potter families of OK village have themselves fell into its trap. “For many years we resisted the modern equipments and now our own family members are asking one by one to replace pottery items with plastic ones,” said Abdul Ghani Kumar. To reduce human efforts in the pottery profession, the Jammu and Kashmir Khadi and Village Industries Board provided Electric Pottery Wheels to associated families of OK village. The frequent power cuts and less voltage has made these machines literally useless, said an elderly Kumar.   

 

THE CHALLENGES OF SURVIVAL

 

Each new day adds more burden to the Kumar families of OK village. The earnings made in the profession are so meagre that the kitchen frequently runs out of essential food items. The continuous failure of meeting the basic needs has snatched the sleep of family heads. “In desperate times, my sons look for some labor work,” said 71-year-old GhulamMohiudin Kumar. For nearly 30 years GhulamMohiudin Kumar remained associated with pottery profession. Despite the deteriorating health, Mohiudin actively voices for safeguarding the dying profession. “It was a reasonable profession and now it is doing more harm to us than good,” said Muhammad Yousuf Kumar. We are not able to finance the education of our children. The meagre capital that the pottery profession generates has wide ranging consequences. “The less income emerges as a barrier in seeking the marriage proposals for the sons of our community,” stated Muhammad Subhan Kumar. Either we have to marry within the community or settle for non-local option”, added Subhan. “We are ready to give our girls in marriage to peasant families but they don’t deem us viable, because we don’t have any property,” remarked Bashir Ahmed Kumar. We have least representation within the different village communities and this frequently strikes our self-respect, added Bashir Ahmed. “The emergence of plastic and steel has snatched bread and better future from our families” remarked Abdul Ghani Kumar. “The red-soil that we use in our profession used to be cheap and easily available at common land,” said Gulzar Ahmad Kumar.  With no more common lands available, the families are purchasing red-soil at a cost of Rs 3000 per trolley and the returns barely meet the investment cost.

For Manzoor Ahmad Kumar, pottery was a profession with huge demand and now it even fails to fetch the bellies of their families. Recalling an old incident of year 2000, Manzoor along with his wife Tasleema went to sell earthenware items. During the entire day, they failed to convince someone to buy their products and in the evening the refusal made Manzoor angry, breaking all the items. For last 13 days, the children of Manzoor Ahmed Kumar are refusing to go to their school. The passing of casteist remarks of Kraal and Kraej by other children in the school has made kids to not turn up for learning center.

Though the state of Jammu and Kashmir granted backward status to village OK in 2013, yet it is not providing any relief to the potter families. The village potters share a paradoxical relationship with the backward status of their village. Since the families are not able to bear the costs on the education of their children, government jobs naturally go to those persons in the village, who have high qualification on their head.

 

THE KUMARS OF BUGAM VILLAGE

 

On the outer edges of a hamlet called Bugam, also in district Kulgam, live nearly a dozen families associated with pottery profession. Quiet and calmness prevails among the houses of artisans which are placed amidst overlapping apple orchards and poplar trees. “Our prospects have been deeply affected by modern equipments made of plastic and aluminium,” said Muhammad Subhan Kumar of Bugam. “Given to the low demand of our products, I don’t want the pottery skills to be passed on to my children,” added Subhan. Interestingly, the modern tastes have failed to appeal the pottery families of Bugam village who are continuing the old streak of drinking and eating in earthen cups and plates. The families are also cooking in pots made of clay that have no harmful effects neither to humans nor to the environment. “With the onset of winter and no demand for our goods, we will be caught in the net of debt,” said 60-year-old Abdul Ghani Kumar. “There is no interest left among people towards our goods and whenever we decide to visit villages for purpose of selling our goods, we increasingly find doors bolted from inside and all we manage is group of dogs running after us resulting in damage to items and injury to us,” added Abdul Ghani. Haleema, an elderly woman recalls the good times when she used to find huge customers for the goods. As the misfortunes gripped their profession, her children had to roll up the studies. Given to severe challenges, Muhammad  Yousuf Kumar believes that this profession cannot be transferred to next generations. “And we have to learn new skills that will fetch us reasonable money.”

By only providing Electric Pottery Vehicles, the government cannot save the dying profession. The government should provide good market to the produced items. In addition, the government needs to come up with a comprehensive policy to preserve the dying art. Since change is inevitable, there is a need to impart new skills to people involved in these professions for their sustainable livelihood.