Thongjao potters adapting to modern requirements

Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba *

Roadside stall selling pots and other models at Thongjao
Roadside stall selling pots and other models at Thongjao

In the race to preserve the rapidly diminishing ancient art of making earthern wares of Manipur, several traditional potters of this Indian border state, are turning to developing new innovative designs and models, to increase the chances of selling it to potential buyers aside from regular consumers.

Fortunately, as plain-looking pots occupies a crucial part in Manipuri culture in religious and marriage ceremonies, the demand for the same continues to live on. The pottery-based meagre industry has survived for centuries and does a mild business in Imphal. But for the potters who have endured much hardship to preserve this art, life is hard and many have discarded their traditional profession in order to seek better income. This is more so at the pottery making centres of Chairel and Nongpok Sekmai.

Although the ancient village of Andro is famous for pottery making and has become a tourist destination due to efforts of the Tourism Department, other traditional pottery making sites face an obsolete future.

Determined Thongjao potters adapting to changing scenario

The village of Thongjao, located some 66 km from the state capital is one such place which is a living witness to the gradual diminishing of pottery making in the state. Interestingly, the small village is gradually adapting to the changing requirements by adopting new ideas. Potters at this village in Kakching district, have introduced colouring with different textures, decorating designs and replicas of different animals, to incite potential buyers.

During the days when modern utensils had not forayed in the daily life of all, colours of earthern wares hardly matter, and most of the pottery products were either plain mud-coloured or dark brown. However that has changed and the financially hard-pressed potters are resorting to artificial colours particularly gold, white, black to make the finished pots and models more attractive.

A mud-coloured pot with floral designs
A mud-coloured pot with floral designs

Although in the distant past, potters made earthern wares meant for storing water, cooking and ceremonial purposes, today's potters are creating items aside from the traditional pots, particularly models of turtles, Penguins, candle stands and others.

In terms of smoothness of the finished pottery works, products of Thongjao clearly maintain an edge over that of their counterparts at Nongpok Sekmai and nearby Chairel. Samjetsabam Subhadhini says better smoothness of Thongjao pots has sealed its place for preference in marriage ceremonies.

The 58-year-old said her family has been involved in making potteries since time immemorial. However, with age taking toll on her eyes and health, she is finding it hard to continue it.

Accordingly, she has to hire other potters, and make earthern wares under her supervision which to her is more expensive for she has to pay their wages. But, the price for paying her hired potters is just the tip of the ice berg for the real expenses comes in obtaining the raw materials (soils) required to make the pots and other models as well as for transporting it to Mother's market in major market centres in Imphal, Pallel and Singjamei.

Brief narrative on process of making pots

Built with the unique mud, Leitan Leimu, Subhadini says in the older days, men would physically dug large portion of pit, almost more than the 10 feet below the surface of the earth. However, today, back hoe loaders (JCB machines) are used to retrieve this black mud thereby making the whole process much costlier. Even then, the potters have to hire these large machines to retrieve the soils into the manufacturing workshop which increases the costs.

The mud-coloured soil Leimu is then proportionately mixed with a whitish clay known as Leikok and highly winnowed sand locally known as Nungjreng.

The kneaded clay mixture is then rolled into a coil and flattened by beating with the rectangular shaped beater "Phunjei" and an anvil. The anvil (stone) is kept on the inside while the beating is done from the outside. After reaching a rough model, the potter uses his skill to pound and flatten the pots into the shape of his desire.

Continuous movement in anti-clockwise manner by hand and constant stroking forms an essential part of the whole process to achieve a synchronised shape on all sides. In fact, many a times, the potter rotates the rough damp model more than 300 times to get smoother and well proportioned shapes.

Polishing is carried out prior to the process of burning of the pots and other models.

Floral and other geometrical designs are also dabbed on the damped models with incised wooden beaters known as Asphujae and pointed metals.

Later, the dried pots and other pounded items are exposed to sunlight for few days.

The pots and other similar work of art are then placed on fire kilns made of bamboos above which rice husk are carefully layered. The pots and other models are then covered with bundles of straws and exposed to fire for atleast three or four days, during which it is made sure that the fire and the smoke reaches all the portions of the models and the resulting smoke does not escape.

Durability of the potteries decreases unless the models are deeply burned. The colouring process is the last stage of the whole pottery making process before it is brought out for sale.

Collection of plain pots meant for transporting to major market places
Collection of plain pots meant for transporting to major market places

Hardship of the traditional potters

Subhadhini continued that soils are procured from the nearby fields for which they have to pay the land owners starting from Rs 3000 to Rs 40, 000 and more, based on the requirement, capacity to pay and availability.

The woman compared transportation of potteries from her native village to the market places to that of transporting eggs. Being very fragile, the pots are to be carefully stuffed and packed by arranging of jute sacks and bundle of straws to make it tightly compact.

She said those who owns mini trucks does not generally concerns themselves with transportation charges but for her and those who don't, it is very expensive. She said much part of the profit that could be extracted also goes into the whole transportation charges.

While Andro village is today gradually thriving with commercial activities, Thongjao and other traditional pottery centres at Nongpok Sekmai, Chairel, Oinam and the picturesque Nungbi villages continue to remain unnoticed by the authorities.

* Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba wrote this article for
The writer works as a correspondent for the Assam-based newspaper Asomiya Pratidin and is also a journalist at PTI Imphal and can be contacted at phanjching(AT)gmail(DOT)com . This article was posted on May 09, 2017.

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