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Ancient connections to come alive through “Ghadai”, an initiative by the Kumbhars (potters) of Kutch

The arts and crafts from the Kutch region are well known today. There is a lot of interest in the fabrics, the weaves, the prints, silver jewellery, copper artifacts and these products are in demand not only in India, but all over the world. Yet, one craft which is not getting the focus and appreciation it deserves is pottery.

Reviving the ancient art of Kutch pottery

The history of pottery in the Kutch region dates back 5000 years at least. Pottery products have been excavated from the archaelogical site of Dholavira, an ancient city belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation.

Talking to Meera Goradia, the director of the Kutch-based NGO KHAMIR, I get to know a little more about the efforts being taken to bring alive the tradition of potters in the region. There are many who have stopped their craft, mainly due to a loss in livelihood. In some villages, the potter’s wheel now lies unturned. Yet in others, there is renewed interest as the craft has also started integrating aspects of newer and more contemporary designs that might appeal to a modern consumer. It is a tough challenge, no doubt, but a step in the right direction is an exhibition being planned to be held from January to March of next year.

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Pottery is as an art form that dates back to many centuries in the Kutch region

I spent a few days with KHAMIR and had some wonderful interactions with the team which is coordinating the efforts there, including project coordinator Niraj Dave, Shrishti Verma (who is meticulously documenting everything), Gayatri Kodikal (filming/photography), Mumbai based ceramic artist Rekha Goyal (curator for the project), local Bhuj potter Ramzubhai and Ganibhai and American India Foundation fellow Gini Morgan. Meera keeps an eye on the overall direction and progress.

Involving traditional potters from seven clusters

The aim is to get local potters involved in the exhibition, and give them a platform to showcase products for a craft that needs a fillip and encouragement. Secondly, involve different sections of society and gather enough interest in the project and expose it to a wide audience. Named after the age-old technique called “Ghadai” used by traditional potters of Kutch to create large objects, the exhibition has been conceptualised to showcase the handicrafts of the kumbhars.

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One of the potters shaping objects using the ghadai technique

In this technique, a basic form is first thrown on the wheel. After that, using different sized round stones and a “paddle”, a desired shape and size is beaten out of it. While it looks deceptively simple, it requires a lot of skill and hard work.

According to KHAMIR, “Ghadai will evoke the ancient connections of the human spirit and clay through archaeology, mythology, and traditions; explore the process of pottery from mud to final product; highlight the significance of the craft through traditional and modern uses; and provoke questions about the future of the craft, the artisans, and the societies we build.”

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Traditionally, men work on the wheel but women often do the hard work like wedging, kneading clay and the painting work

The NGO is working with seven traditional pottery clusters of the desert region and also attempting to trace the history of pottery in this area. Currently, the team is travelling through different villages, talking, interacting and filming the artisans in order to compile a comprehensive history of the craft. I accompanied the team on an excursion (more of which will come in a later post) and it was interesting to see potters talk about their challenges and witness their dedication to keep their craft alive.

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The team walking around Gundayali village on a visit

In the village of Gundayali (close to Mandvi town) Yusufbhai talks about how in every village, the most important member would traditionally be the potter; he was bestowed with the name prajapati, lord of the people. Sadly, with the products losing relevance, many of them replaced by metal, plastic and other artificial material, the “need” for such products has gone down drastically.

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Yusufbhai, who is one of the potters of Gundayali village talking about some of the issues they face today

Though Yusufbhai continues to create terracotta objects, he is aware that many are giving up this profession. His son, for many years lived in Mumbai, working in the retail industry and came back home a few years ago. Though he doesn’t work with clay, he has realised the potential and helps his father sell his wares. “I go off with a truckload of products and visit all the interior villages in this region for many months at a time, selling products,” says the son.

While potters are finding it difficult to sell their wares, there is also an issue of underpricing. The little diyas for example, are being bargained for Rs 2-3, which is a miserable amount if you look at the fact that the effort of the potter – finding and sourcing the clay, kneading/wedging, making, firing, painting – is hardly covered. The size of the object might be small, but no one want to give him what’s due for his effort. For a potter, at these prices, his business is not sustainable.

This is perhaps where NGOs like KHAMIR are playing a part in terms of defining better market rates for the potter, ensuring he gets his due and of course, even suggesting more contemporary designs that might appeal to a consumer. KHAMIR is already doing this and their store contains quite a few pottery products, much of it produced in their in-house studio.

Re-creating pottery objects lost to time

Ghadai will showcase pieces that are re-creations of traditional pottery objects that were used in the region but have been lost to time. As a result of a largely oral tradition of continuing know-how, and the lack of formalized curation and documentation of traditional crafts, some of these pieces are not even found in museums. It was through dedicated efforts of the team that potters were identified who were familiar with the techniques of making these forms. Some of them know the object, and the techniques involved, but have probably not made that particular object for many years.

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Husainbhai working on one of the pieces for the exhibition at the Khamir in-house studio

This is a big challenge. Niraj, who is one of the leads in the project says that working with potters has been a interesting experience despite all these roadblocks. He enjoys the interactions with the artisans and going out to different villages to identify the right people, talk to them and try to get them excited about the larger picture. Undoubtedly not an easy task. Many of them are not convinced much will come out of a “concept”. Others like Ramzubhai are getting actively involved, travelling with the team to help them facilitate the process.

DSC_0062Bhuj based traditional potter Ganibhai has been working very closely with the team

For Rekha too, who is based in Mumbai and makes a trip every month, it has been an enriching experience so far. She says, “There are layers of craft, culture, tradition, modernity, history and society that constantly push and tug at each other. Understanding the craft and the craftsmen in a local context and making it relevant to modern changes without losing sight of the integrity of the craft and its people has been a challenge and a learning. But the richness and serenity of pottery, the region, its culture and people drives me to keep pushing the boundaries in an effort to help get the art form of the region to its rightful place.”

It all culminates in an exhibition and an auction

The Ghadai show opens at the KHAMIR campus in Bhuj, Kutch on January 17, 2015 and will be on till the March 31, 2015. During this time it will also travel to Mumbai for a special display at Hermès, 15 A Horniman Circle, Mumbai from February 12 to March 1, 2015.

IMG_0893The beautiful KHAMIR campus will play host to the exhibition: Mark your calendars if you plan to visit Kutch and Gujarat during this time

The pieces will be auctioned online on the KHAMIR website from February 12, 2015 to March 1, 2015. Proceeds of the auction will go towards continuing the work of KHAMIR within the handicraft space.

About KHAMIR
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It was set-up in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj with the primary focus of reviving the livelihood of the craft artisans, especially those that were completely destroyed in the earthquake. KHAMIR is committed to the preservation of the crafts, culture and cultural ecosystems of the craft communities of the region. KHAMIR does this by providing these communities of craftsmen with a framework within which they can refine and develop their craft. There are dedicated studios and teams focused on R&D which strengthen local value chains, design & product development and providing market access.

Watch the video: Ghadai by the Kumbh Kumbhars

Follow KHAMIR and the project on Facebook

For any enquries, reach out to:
Meera Goradia, Director KHAMIR, khamir.craft@gmail.com, +91 9825321082
Rekha Goyal, Curator, contact@rekhagoyal.com, +91 9833058151
This project was selected for support by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès as part of the H3 programme: Head – Heart – Hand.

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All about my travels, adventures and shenanigans since 2001. Spent most of my years in India and now based in the US since 2015. Besides my home country, travel has taken me to various parts of the US, Europe and South-east Asia. I love exploring cultures, cuisines and new landscapes and interacting with people from all walks of life. Inherently curious with a passion for life and an innate need for sharing and telling stories!