BHAKTAPUR, Jan 20: On a freezing cold morning in a corner of a square, Surya Kumar carefully lays out rice hay on the ground over an area of roughly 130 square feet to prepare a kiln to bake a variety of clayware. His six-strong team of family members including cousins has spend a month preparing the clayware.
In a woolen cap and a black mask, probably to protect himself from the dust that rises as he unties and lays out each bunch of hay on the ground, a reserved looking Surya Karma, who is in this early thirties, has no time to articulate his displeasure with a calling that, according to him, is not only shrinking but also sinking.
“Yeah, we are gearing up for the final step in a difficult production chain in pottery, an occupation that has gotten us nowhere,” he says with agnuish while placing a sheet of husk on top of a think layer of rice hay.
Suresh Kumar arranges clayware.
Hari Ram, Surya Kumar´s nephew, is busy bringing unbaked clay frames for electric heaters and curd-pot from a nearby house, but pauses to listen in on the conversation. Taking a deep breath, he says plastic products as the greatest enemy of their trade. “It has replaced virtually everything that we make.”
As the sun appears out of the morning fog and Surya Kumar completes placing seven sacks of husk, his sister brings a thermos full of tea. Taking a sip from a stainless steel glass, Surya Kumar sits on a round hay mattress and explains how a widening mismatch between dwindling demand and rising cost of production threatens the very existence of the pottery trade.
“The price of a minitruck-full of hay has tripled to Rs 16,000, and the cost of clay and husk has doubled during the same period.”
In the tea break, Hari Ram, a highschool graduate, shares a story of how lack of alternative livelihoods is compelling them to stick to a dying occupation. I did quit once and tried something new but it didn´t work out, and so I had to return to the calling of my ancestors, says Hari Kumar.
As they finish their tea and gear up for the delicate task of systematically laying out the unbaked clayware on the thick layer of husk, a jolly-looking man in his late fifties joins the team. Krishna Kumar, father of Surya Kumar, closely oversees the way the younger hands place the unbaked clayware, often telling them to leave a gap between different items.
Adjusting the heat by controlling the flow of air inside the kiln is the science behind this traditional clay baking technology, explains Krishna Kumar, who has attended school for only one day in his entire life. “I went to a school when I was six. Since I didn´t find it interesting, I stopped going from the very next day,” he says with a sheepish grin.
I don´t know how old this baking technology is but I remember seeing my grandpapa carefully watching the color of the smoke coming out of the kiln and adjusting the flow of air inside by piercing the kiln with a pointed wooden stick. “You have to control the heat. Excess heat causes cracks in the clayware whereas too little heat turns the clay black,” explains Krishna Kumar.
As sunlight appeared in the roughly 50 by 50 meter public square and elders and children came out of their houses with rectangular hay mattresses to sit in the sun, an old man wrapped in a woollen blanket pops up to join the chat. Kaji Bahadur, now 84, stares carefully through his thick glasses and shares his over seven decades of glorious involvement in the pottery trade. In a low-pitched voice, Kaji Bahadur says lack of quality clay, which makes the fine finishing work difficult, is the major problem.
“Almost all the sources of quality clay in our days have been destroyed by rapid urbanization," he beams, his face full of wrinkles. Back in those days, says Kaji Bahadur, who retired from pottery work at the age of 75, clay vessels including tubs were the prime products, but now he sees flowerpots and pots for curd topping the list.
However, Hari Ram, who has just finished laying out the unbaked flowerpots and frames for electric heaters and placing another layer of hay on top of them, joins in the conversation to say that the introduction of plastic flowerpots, which are much lighter and easy to transport, is the latest blow to clay pottery.
"We are losing the battle in almost all product items and that is why the number of families involved in this trade in Thimi has declined to 67 now from 107 a decade ago," he says.
Despite the looming gloom, clay pottery work is in full swing in the square, with almost all the adults in the family busy as the sun approaches midday. To the south, Jagat Kumar and his wife, both in their fifties, are crushing with spades lumps of raw clay just brought in from Harishiddi while Nani Maiya is giving the finishing touch to the electric heater frames before putting them out in the sun to dry.
Towards the west, Maila is using a wooden stick to carefully calibrate the heat inside the kiln that he installed a day before, and making small holes in it to let in the air.
As Hari Ram goes for lunch, Surya Kumar, who has just finished laying out the third layer of clayware and a sheet of hay, seems busy placing another layer of husk. When he was a child, they used only hay, but when hay started becoming scarce some 20 year ago, they started turning to husk, he says.
Now, as the clock crosses four and sunlight disappears, the potters wrap up their work and the square quickly thins out.
But it´s a different story for Surya Kumar and his team. They instead speed things up to compete the kiln as darkness closes in. An hour later, they start covering the entire kiln, packed with six layers of clayware, with ash. This works as insulation, according to Hari Ram.
After 10 hours of relentless work, it is now time to light up the kiln. Surya Kumar makes six different holes in all directions, pours kerosene in bottle caps at the mouth of each hole and lights up the holes one by one with matches. Meanwhile, a tired-out Hari Ram sits atop a sack half-filled of husk and calculates, sometime using his fingers and thumbs, the money he expects to make in a week when the entire lot is ready to go to market. Ten minutes later, he stands up with a bleak face to share with his team that this lot is also turning out to be a loss-making venture. "If things go well, we will make around Rs 45,000 whereas the total cost of production, including daily wages for the team that labored for a month to prepare the clayware, stands at over Rs 100,000," says Hari Ram while fastening the buttons on his grey, check shirt.
Clayware a healthy choice Ganesh Ram Lachi
Advisor, Nepal Prajapati Samaj
Could you please tell us something about the history of pottery in Nepal?
Kathmandu´s pottery history is not very clear. But it believed that potters first entered the Valley with King Hari Singh Dev from Simraungadh in what is now Bara district, in the sixth century. Currently, three different castes are found involved in the pottery trade in Nepal, with the Prajapatis dominant in Kathmandu Valley. As far as the kiln technology is concerned, I believe there has not been any remarkable change since it was first introduce some 1,400 years ago. But there has been some minor changes, particularly in the way the kiln is heated. For example, potters in the past used to mix hay with palm leaves to bake the clay but now they mostly mix the hay with husk.
How do you assess the challenges to the pottery industry?
Growing use of plastic and metal utensils that have largely replaced clayware is definitively the biggest challenge. But I think we can deal with the situation if we properly educate consumers about the range of health-related benefits in using clayware, along with their cultural value. I also think we need to be more innovative with the clay products.
Potters complain that the business is not profitable anymore.
I disagree. Yes, the demand for clay pottery is down and so is the production. The entire pottery output is over 60 percent less than what it used to be just a decade ago. Now just three products -- flowerpots, curd-pot and vessels used in distilling homemade liquor -- account for 80 percent of the clayware produced in Nepal. As the demand for these three items is still healthy, I think clay pottery is still profitable, though not at the same level as before.