At the heart of every village in India is the kumbhar (potter) who practices the timeless tradition of shaping the earth into utensils and decorative items. This heredity craft, which can be traced back over 5,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization, is now under threat. Modern India has moved to plastic and steel and the potters are largely sustained by festival orders for diyas (oil lamps) and idols. However, there are some positive signs emerging to sustain the craft. In December 2020, Indian Railways declared it would return to using kulhads (clay drinking cups) for tea, replacing the environmentally disastrous plastic cups and in doing so also provide work to hundreds of thousands of potters across the country, as well as making the chai (tea) taste better!
Alongside the village potters are regional specialist artisans like those in Jaipur who create the distinctive glazed pottery, commonly known as ‘blue pottery’ and the Tangkhul Naga tribal potters in the village of Longpi in the hill district of Manipur who make the famous black pottery. In Tamil Nadu there is a strong tradition to create terracotta bommai (dolls) for display during the Navratri festival. India has also seen the emergence of studio potters creating stoneware utility items, sculpture and art pieces. Jaipur hosted the first Indian Ceramic Triennale in 2018 celebrating India’s rich pottery heritage and showcasing contemporary ceramic artists.
“Terracotta, a functional art, is the first creative expression of civilization. From the common earthen pot that stores drinking water to the giant-sized cultic equestrian figures of the rural Tamil deities of the Aiyyanar cult, terracotta art occupies a central position in Indian life and culture. It would be a long search for a village or locality in India where a potter is not to be found.” Sanskriti Foundation
“Across India the colours of the earth change with the topography, from the dark geru-reds of the coastal regions to the ebony shades found in the interiors to the bleached buff hues of the deserts. These shades are reflected in the clay-coated village homes, the cooking and storage vessels, the objects of play and in votive and ritual offerings. Since antiquity the language of clay has been explored by cultures and civilizations. In India its use has extended across architecture and sculpture from the terracotta bricks and the sophisticated clay-pipe drainage systems to the great variety of pots, wheeled toy-carts and figurines.” Ritu Sethi