Rooted to earth

INSIDE a dimly-lit hut, Gadadhar Rana vigorously spins his manual potter’s wheel amidst stacks of hay. With his hands soaked in wet clay, he deftly shapes a large lamp that he immediately removes from the wheel using a thread and keeps aside. In about 30 minutes, he creates 15 such clay lamps and places them out in the sun to dry.Outside the hut, his wife Sarojini squats on a platform and draws patterns on the corners of the partially-dried lamps. She will then apply red ochre colour or black soil and paint them in vibrant hues to make Gadadhar’s creations even more attractive.

It is that time of the year again when the 150-odd potter families including that of Gadadhar and Sarojini in Nuagaon village, located 15 to 17 km from Bhubaneswar, engage themselves in making traditional clay lamps for Diwali. The small village, known for terracotta wares since centuries, has around 60 houses and outside each of them, hundreds of small and big lamps are neatly arranged in rows to dry. “We start sending our lamps and cracker pots to the Bhubaneswar market a month before Diwali,” she says.

Even as demand for their clay and terracotta products remains steady throughout the year, it is during Diwali that the Nuagaon potters earn the most. “We receive orders round the year but the demand soars during this festive season,” Gadadhar beams. The potters start making clay lamps and cracker pots two months before Diwali. On an average, a potter makes 500 mid-size or 1,000 small lamps every day for which, at least one sack of fine clay is required. The small lamps are sold at one rupee each to wholesalers in Bhubaneswar market.

The potters here still swear by the traditional wheels and only a few in the village have shifted to motor-run wheels, which are considered a faster option to increase production. “While some times, synthetic colours are used to paint the lamps and other decorative items, we try to keep the look of the products as raw as possible as it appeals to many buyers in cities,” says Ramakanta, another potter who has been into the business for the last one decade.

There is a government-run cooperative society ‘Utkalamani Gopabandhu Samabaya Samiti Coop Ltd’ in the village which trains them as far as skill development and design intervention are concerned. There are 70 members in the society, which is led by Gadadhar’s brother Pitambar.
Apart from clay lamps, earthen vessels to store water, flower pots, piggy banks and decorative items for landscaping are some of the products that people master here on potter wheels. Cow dung, fire wood, hay and broken earthen pots are used to make kilns where these earthenware are fired to make them durable.

Raw material shortage is a perennial problem that the potters face. While they procure fine clay from Munduli, the potters are apprehensive that the precious raw material will not be available in future due to government restrictions. “For the last seven years, we have been agitating at the PMG under the aegis of Kalinga Mahasangha over shortage of raw materials for potters in the State, but to no avail. The price of clay has also increased over the years,” says Gadadhar, who is also a member of the cooperative society.

With urban dwellers not purchasing clay lamps in bulk anymore due to popularity of candles and Chinese lights, the Nuagaon potters are innovating their designs. “The charm of lighting lamps is not gone yet which is why, our economy is safe. The trick of surviving this market change is innovation of traditional products. We try to do creative designs and shapes in lamps as this is necessary to retain its demand among the new-age customers,” says 20-year-old Rajkumar Maharana, who is an arts graduate. This year, Rajkumar has designed a 16-inch high terracotta lamp structure with 300 small lamps on it. This beautifully decorated lamp is priced at `6,000. Hanging lamps and lamps designed like flowers and leaves are also a part of his oeuvre. The price of these specially crafted clay lamps ranges from `50 to `250. “People buy these for art value more than the purpose of lighting a lamp,” he says.

At present, Odisha has as many as 10,000 terracotta artistes and their concentration is high in Subarnapur, Nuagaon in Khurda, Barpalli in Bargarh, Haldarpur in Keonjhar, Lunukua in Jagatsinghpur and Kusumi in Koraput. The State has three National awardees and 18 State awardees in terracotta.

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