TODAY -

Indigenous earthen wares of Ningthemcha Karong
- Distinctive, unrecognized artisan and Dying Art -

Reena Nongmaithem / Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba *

Ima Panji with her rare black-coloured hookah handed by her deceased elders
Ima Panji with her rare black-coloured hookah handed by her deceased elders.



Settled largely by the expanded descendants of the royal family and others of this formerly Indian princely state of Manipur, Ningthemcha Karong is a few minutes' drive from capital Imphal and is hardly known, though in the past, it was renowned for producing hookahs and other earthen red wares specifically meant for the usage by the royal families.

Making of earthen wares, mostly potteries and crockery items, in Manipur's long history have been characterized from its counterparts in the rest of the country with one particular distinction which is employment of wheels in making of such potteries. However, in Manipur state, potteries are made through various beating processes to achieve desired models and design.

Earlier, in the past, earthen wares in this ancient state were generally used for domestic purposes and ritualistic objectives, both for unfortunate incidents including funeral, religious ceremonies and marriage ceremonies.

Uniqueness of earthen wares of Ningthemcha Karong

The small locality bears important significance from two perspectives as compared to other traditional pottery production sites of the state located at the ancient village of Andro, Chairen, Thongjao, Nongpok Sekmai, Longpi and Oinam.

Firstly, the artisans of the locality have deep-rooted connection with the royal family of the erstwhile Manipuri kingdom. Rulers and influential nobles of this Indian princely state are believed to have directed the artisans of Ningthemcha Karong to engage in providing intricately carved smoking hookahs.

Secondly, of all the pottery production sites, earthen wares of Ningthemcha Karong, are exquisite, minutely detailed in engravings which mostly are hand-carved geometrical figures and mostly devoid of floral designs which otherwise can be found in Thongjao potteries although in recent times, artisans of Thongjao potters have employed modern day colours to enhance the looks of its products to promote its commercial value.

Andro village too has its own undeniable place in the study of pottery-making in landlocked state which once had an antagonistic relationship with her gigantic neighbour Myanmar. Most of the potteries produced in that village located in the foothills of Imphal valley are meant for storing local liquors, water, grains and other models which have disappeared.

However, with Andro village rapidly becoming a tourist destination, local artisans have turned their attention to making of decorative representation of animals, production of flower vases, piggy banks and depiction of traditional deities and clothed figures of mythological characters which are produced with the objective for commercialization. These is, considered a necessity, by the locals as it provides them means of livelihood as well as enhance their artistic skills.

Nganthak Awumba - An intricately hand engraved item placed at the top of the hookah, generally used by the royal class and influential lots in the past
Nganthak Awumba - An intricately hand engraved item placed at the top of the hookah, generally used by the royal class and influential lots in the past.



"Nganthak Awumba", which is placed at the top of the smoking hookah, according to artisan Panji, is one of the most intricately engraved and designed traditional item ever to be found in the history of Manipur earthen wares.

The ordinary Khambi, on the contrast, are also used in place of Nganthak Awumba. The distinction lies in the fact that the one is used by commoners and the latter is generally employed by the royal class and influential lots respectively.

Tale of artisan Akoijam Panji of Ningthemcha Karong

Uneducated yet highly skilled, Akoijam Panji in her late sixties is one of the few elderly unrecognised masters and unknown artists of Manipur state who deeply understands how to create artistic and decorative earthen wares characterized by intricately engraved geometrical shapes.

The elderly woman, who have been involved in making hookahs, small potteries, incense holders and chillum for some 45 years claims she has in her possession a black-coloured "Royal Hookah which was once used by a ruler of this formerly princely state" though her fragile memory could not recall the name of the Rajah who used it.

Despite age taking a toll on her ability to make different types of such earthen wares in large numbers, the elderly woman is very conscious about the fact that "the art and the culture of producing distinctive earthen wares are on the verge of extinction" unless it is given immediate attention by concerned authorities.

Panji says "demands of her finished earthen wares is high" but the "necessities required to make in large numbers makes it almost impossible to meet the requirement" due to lack of trainees, manpower and severe financial requirements.

The process of making an earthen ware starts with the procuring of distinctive soils found deep underneath the ground. In the past, where lands were available in plenty, artisans' would dig up part of land within their compound till the suitable material is found.

The elderly soft-spoken artisan says those engaged in making such earthen wares can easily identify suitable soils after visual examination.

Unfortunately, with increasing population, they have to hire workers to look for suitable soils in far off fields and has to bear the burden for transportation charges as well, which adds up to financial pressure.

On the other hand, wholesale buyers from the capital's main market would purchase a finished item at low cost and sell it to customers at four and five times higher the original price. One Ak Bidyarani says a chillum is sold at Rs 4 per piece.

Interestingly, counterpart of rock-made chillum at Lamangdong in Bishnupur district however costs not less than Rs 250, said one Yanglem Sushil to the writer.

The Dying Art

Though some countable families in this locality are still engaged in the production of its traditional earthen wares, the exquisite art is being shunned by younger generation. Locals opine parents prefer to send their children to educational establishments rather than pursue this art.

Youngsters hailing from financially backward families also prefer not to involve in the process of becoming an artisan as the learner has to toil hard and frequently has to remain covered with mud procured from underneath the ground.

Tools required

"Phundrei" is the widely employed traditional equipment which forms the basis of making earthen potteries in the state. The tool which now has been replaced by electric-based motors is used to shape the size of the potteries and other earthen wares.

In the earlier past, ropes were used to rotate the tool with another person holding the unfinished earthen ware to acquire the desired shape. Other than these, simple bamboo canes with differently pointed tops are used for engravings.

Products

Of all the items, made by the fragile old woman, chillum, candle stands and incense holders (Dhuk Khambi) are high in demand and which are sold by other vendors in Imphal's main market. On the other hand, smoking hookahs along with the intrinsic engraved item "Awumba" which is placed at the top of the hookah is in high demand. Small sized potteries are also incorporated with engravings which are still in production.


* Reena Nongmaithem and Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba wrote this article for e-pao.net
Reena Nongmaithem is an independent journalist with a Ph.D in Mass Communication.
Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba, a cultural enthusiast, is a special correspondent for the Assam -based daily "Asomiya Pratidin" and a journalist at Press Trust of India (PTI)
The writer can be contacted at phanjching(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on August 10, 2017.


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