Pottery on the fringe

Most students living in the school hostels would go home during the Diwali holidays. But it was customary for the small group that stayed back to visit the house of Nazeeb Khan, a potter in village Gilpatti near Bathinda, Punjab. The purpose was not just to buy earthen diyas, but also to behold the process of making the age-old source of light. 

A group of twelve students and three teachers set out on a short expedition on foot on 11th November 2014, the day of Diwali. Early morning they walked for two kilometers to meet Nazeeb, who received them warmly outside the village and escorted them to his house. In the past it was inconceivable that a potter would be free from work on a Diwali day. Nazeeb and his family members would start making diyas several weeks before in those days. Still they could not fulfill the demand of the customers.  Things are different now. Very few people are interested in earthen diyas these days. 

Nazeeb Khan giving shape to a diya. Photo credit: arun jee

There was excitement among the students. They had come to observe Nazeeb making diyas and also to try their hand at pottery. It may appear to be simple, but a small diya has to go through various complex processes — selecting the appropriate clay for kneading, giving shape on the running chak to baking — before it reaches the hands of its user. Nazeeb is adept at these skills. He did not go to a school to acquire this art. It has come to him naturally by watching his elders. The students enjoyed watching Nazeeb’s fingers negotiating with clay dough on the moving chak. They were awed by the way he was able to mould the clay into the shape and size of his choice with a certain fluidity in his movements. Some of them even tried their hand at this creative process, but in vain. Little did they realise that what they were trying to do in one attempt has taken years for Nazeeb to master.

Nazeeb’s ancestors were potters who had come to Gilpatti some 300 hundred years back in search of livelihood. Since then the coming generations have been engaged in this profession. The difference between then and now is that pottery was the only source of income for his ancestors, but for Nazeeb and his generation it is just a part time job.

Fifty years ago when the majority of people still used earthen pots and utensils for their daily use, the potters were in great demand. They had to work constantly to meet the requirements of the community in the village. The times have changed now. The earthenware have now been replaced by the metal ones in every household, those of steel the most common. These pots (earthen) have just remained the works of art which may fetch higher prices in some high end markets, if recognized by the connoisseurs. But it is no longer a regular source of income for them. Nazeeb and his community wait anxiously for the season of Deepawali when he and his family would make use of their skill to earn as much as possible. In the remaining part of the year Nazeeb earns his livelihood as a barber. His elder brother, Anwar, works as a conductor in a bus. His uncle drives a horse cart.

The descendants of Nazeeb’s great great grandfather have expanded and have branched out. Most of these families live in close proximity with one another in a kind of ghetto but pottery isn’t a full time profession for any. Just as they live on the northern end of the village, their art and profession of pottery is also on the fringe.

©arun jee


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