Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Feat of Clay

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Humans are known to have experimented with clay for nearly 30,000 years when they first began to create figurines for domestic and ritual use. But it was with the establishment of the first settlements that works of clay were mass produced. From the first sun-dried objects it was only a short way to fired pieces. The basic pit kiln firing at 800 degrees Celsius was followed by the updraft kiln capable of attaining temperatures of up to 1200 degrees as seen in Harappa dating as far back back as 2400 BCE. Working clay into ringing terracotta had come of age.

A red slip is applied to a miniature Harappan urn before painting it in the same ancient style
As he sits on the edge with his feet turning the wheel in the shallow pit to turn the smaller wheel on which he shapes the formless lump of moist clay, Mohammad Bashir of Harappa knows he keeps an ancient tradition alive. Belonging to the Kumhar or potter clan, Bashir follows a family profession handed down through more generations than he can count. Though he does not know how long man has been creating clay objects, he says that living in riverine areas like the Punjab, there was never any shortage of material and it was only natural for it to be put to use.

The potter’s tools
Bashir recounts how the best clay, reddish in colour and consistently smooth, is procured from the floodplain of the nearby Ravi River. But to reach it, no fewer than three metres of sandy top soil has to be removed. It is a full day’s job for him, his nephew and four other men to dig up a trolley-load of it.

Mohammad Bashir, the master potter of Harappa, at his chuck shaping a chaati or milk churn. To his left, his nephew Allah Ditta kneads a fresh mass of clay for the wheel. The chaatis in front will go to another craftsman who will shape and enlarge their bodies with a pair of hand tools

In his compound, Bashir kneads the clay to the required density before it can go on the wheel. The wheel itself, called chuck in Punjabi, has not changed in several millenniums. A shallow rounded pit contains a wooden wheel measuring about 60 centimetres across connected to an upright axle anchored in the ground below. Steadied by a crossbeam at the rim of the pit, the upper end of the axle is connected to another wheel about half the size of the one below. The bottom wheel, turned by foot, spins the top wheel atop which the lump of clay is shaped.

The compound where Bashir works with a few relatives is busy even today. Here, they produce the chati or traditional milk churn and the water pot. The surahi or long-necked water pot and clay toys are already out of use while the kunali, a wide, flat-bottomed basin for kneading dough or fermenting milk, and drinking tumbler is sold only in villages. And that too decreasingly as people shift to other material.

The time-honoured tradition was to pay the potter’s wages at every harvest. Bashir says that for every 12 pottery objects supplied, the user gave 40 kilograms of grain. Typically, every household in his village required no fewer than 12 items between harvests. Consequently, the family always had enough grain for their own use and to sell for cash. That was in the time of his father, he adds.

Today, there are only five families in the village that purchase terracotta pottery. The rest have all moved to aluminium kitchenware. With just 200 kilograms of grain to go by for the extended family and none to sell for cash, Bashir’s life is hard. The cash now comes from the sale of only two products – the milk churn and water pot – he makes and sells in the market at Sahiwal. But this too is a diminishing dividend.

Some 20 years ago, archaeologist Mark Kenoyer, then working on the ruins of prehistoric Harappa, set up a potter’s workshop to reproduce Indus Valley terracotta ware. He hired Bashir and his late elder brother Nawaz and with minimal training got them to reproduce products that could just as well have been used 5,000 years ago. Having studied the patterns painted on the ancient pottery, the brothers were also able to replicate them faithfully.

Harappan miniatures to thrill the hearts of tourists
Bashir can also produce the large storage vessel, commonly used in Harappan homes. Just over one metre tall and about three metres around, the recreation of this item has shown how the bottom half was crafted on fast wheel and the upper on slow wheel turned by one man while another shaped the top. Today, some of these imitations are proudly displayed in the homes of aficionados of ancient culture. At least one is on display in a museum.

But there are few takers for the life-sized vessel. Bashir’s wheel therefore routinely throws miniature replicas of several different utensils from ancient Harappa. These are then painted with those same timeless patterns from five millenniums ago. It is a slow market nevertheless and the potter makes a meagre living.

Other than Allah Ditta, his late brother Nawaz’s son, Bashir has no apprentices. Getting one trolley-load of clay takes up the whole day and costs Rs. 12,000. The clay is then worked for a month or so to make just enough to stay alive. Who would want to spend hours turning the wheel even to lend grace on formless lumps of shiny clay when that cannot make a good living?

Of course, Allah Ditta has picked up the craft well, for he traces back his line through countless generations of potters. But after him? In a few years there will be no takers of this fine art. Even worse, the death of the craft will not matter to a public that holds it in no regard.

He may as well have added, ‘Who laments the death of the once fabulous city of Harappa that they would mind the passing of a craft that dates back to its heyday?’ Who indeed.

Previous: Silence in Kosh KalatThat Riot of ColourGrit of Stone, Stewards of the Ring, Turn of the Wheel, Toil of the Loom, From Timber to Tenor, Making the Tenor , In Wisps of Smoke, The Fragrance of Clove , So Long, Excalibur,  Glint Gone Dim

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