In all urban pottery hobby centers, (potential) students are told about the therapeutic qualities of clay and wheel pottery. Pottery in the cities is relatively easy (and therapeutic) as raw materials to prepare clay bodies are easily available, modern machinery and casting methods reduce the amount of physical labor required, and hand-made products are a novelty that fetch high prices to justify all the hard work put in.
The scenario however, is very different in rural pottery villages of Sri Lanka. There clay extraction itself is so tedious that all families in a village have to do it together. Government permits and limits add more complexities to the task. Firing requires wood, which indirectly falls in the government domain and is, therefore, outsourced to minimize paper work. Electric wheels are still new and work is weather dependent. And after all the hard work, good prices are hard to come by.
As part of my research on pottery practices of Sri Lanka, I went to a well-known pottery village in Sri Lanka – Nochchiyagama. It is a village in the dry-central region of the country, Anuradhapura, which once used to be the capital of Sri Lanka. I visited the village in August 2017, when it had not rained for 2 consecutive years, causing severe water shortage. So much so that the villagers could not grow any crops that season and had to look for alternate work opportunities, and the lakes in the region went completely dry.
Pottery particularly requires a lot of water – mainly for making the clay workable (dry clay is mixed with water to achieve workable consistency) and wheel throwing. When I landed in Anuradhapura – a city 28km from the village – my guest house owner recommended against going to the village as he assumed no pottery work would be going on due to water shortage. I still went. On visiting the village, luckily, I met Ramesh. A Tamil potter who had briefly gone to Saudi to work as a driver and had come back knowing Hindi, a language I understood. He took me around the village on his bike and helped me understand his daily life as a Nochchiyagama potter.
Ramesh took me to the lake, a kilometer away from their houses, that had dried for the first time ever. On the positive side, villagers discovered that the fine clay beneath the lake’s surface was better than the clay they had been using for years for which they had to travel 12-15 km. This was the first time that the villagers used clay from their own village to make pots.
Every potter is allocated certain amount of clay per year and all male members of the potter families together dig clay for every potter of the community.
Despite acute water shortage, the villagers still practice pottery. How? I will cover that in the second part of this blog.