India has one million potters, more than any other country, and their clay techniques have been handed down for generations. Created from the very soil, pottery and clay sculptures are essential to the continuity of life.
A tradition ancient as civilisation itself, in India, every rite of passage in a person’s life- birth, puberty, marriage, death- all are marked by a ceremony involving a ritual clay vessel. Every community, however small, usually incorporates at least one working potter, while towns and cities have large potting populations.
As these craftsmen cater to an extraordinary diversity of subcultures, traditions and environments, their products are usually varied. They make vessels for every conceivable household use; from the simplest clay lamps, cooking pots and food containers, to storage bins eight feet high. They sculpt images to be used in religious ceremonies ranging from tiny figures made from pinches of clay to magnificent horses and elephants over eighteen feet tall, the largest terracottas ever created in the history of humanity.
The potter as a Progenitor Vishwakarma, is a separate hereditary class, distinct and inviolable, and their social order monopolises the craft. Although their position within the caste hierarchy is low, they are socially respected and even feared. Indian potters are alchemists, transforming sacred but impure substances into materials for mundane and ritual use.
Different regions of India boast of making different but yet unique pieces of pottery. The same flower pot can be found in an amazing variety of shapes, sizes and designs depending upon the place of its creation. The diverse nature of Indian handicrafts can be evidently seen in its pottery traditions. Every Indian state is special in its own traditions of pottery be it Bengal and terra cotta, Rajasthan and blue pottery, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and other Indian states and their traditions.
These products are quite expressive in form and shapes, wholesome and true to the material. Jaipur in Rajasthan has a reputation for pottery. The glazing agents are mainly blue and turquoise, derived from cobalt and copper oxide; this form is popularly known as Delhi Blue Pottery. Equally famous are the votive plaques in terracotta from Molela, Udaipur, as also the ornamented Pokharan pottery. Khurja and Rampur have a distinctive style of pottery, with raised patterns created by the use of thick “slips” in slight relief. The old traditional shapes of Khurja pottery were vital and beautifully proportioned. Other important centers of pottery in Uttar Pradesh are Chunar, Azamgarh and Aligarh, where a type of interesting black pottery is also made.
“The soaring prices of raw materials and change in the taste of people have put us in a precarious condition. We are carrying on the traditional system of making earthen diyas, pots and other things but the numbers of buyers are declining in every Diwali”
However, this traditional system is under threat, and for two reasons. First, the children of the potters are increasingly taking up other and more lucrative professions. The sons of potters do not wish to continue. Secondly, there is today a profound disconnect between the craftsperson and the market. Earlier, the potter designed products that catered to their immediate local markets. There was a clear understanding of what the market wanted, which in turn shaped the design of the goods produced. Today, however, markets are far away from the place of manufacture. Thus, potters who work in the same way on the same products as they always did, find that there are often no buyers for their wares.
It is a well known fact that the Government of India and respective State Governments are aware of the grim situation. Pioneering attempts are being made to sensitize artisans and traditional performers helping them align their traditional skills and products to changing local and global market trends.
India has a long history of indigenous mapping systems inherent in the community structures that were primarily based on skill sets of the community. To date, the most comprehensive data on creative and cultural industries is to be found within the cluster mapping systems such as those of the Prajapati Samaj, which collates data of the potter communities. The most direct course open to policy makers for the mapping of the sector is to harness the experience and networks of such indigenous mapping groups.
 Asian Heritage Foundation, Past Forward, The future of India’s Creativity, 2006, New Delhi
- MAMTA MANTRI