Pottery in Kanyakumari must have a longer history than we can remember. Two such places where the old town tradition is still kept uncompromisingly alive are Chunkankadai & Perunselvavillai.
Perunselvavillai - A proud Tradition in Pottery
Nagercoil is not like it used to be. It is in the middle of many head spinning transitions. The four-laning of our highway, traffic diversions, brewing opposition for the ICTT project, and commercialization of KP road are some of the major changes to hit Nagercoil town recently. And this change is seeping through the old town border which has been expanding seamlessly every few years. Signs of the old town remain visible in Kottar, Vadasery, Vadiveeswaram and in a few pockets around the new town boundary. The old, is giving way to all things new. And so, before time ran out in this part of the town, we turned up at Perunchelvavillai to see the pot in its making.
Pottery in Kanyakumari must have a longer history than we can remember. Two such places where the old town tradition is still kept uncompromisingly alive are Chunkankadai & Perunselvavillai. Beyond these town centers Chenpaharamanputhoor and Terisanamkopu in Kanyakumari district are famous for the local pottery. Two decades years ago, there were 28 such pockets where pottery was an industry and over 2500 families engaged in the occupation. Now it has shrunk to less than 700.
The invasion and acceptance of aluminum and stainless steel in our home kitchens spelled the doom of the earthen ware. The earthen stoves & the terracotta cook ware that were so common once have been replaced by gas hobs & microwave ovens. So were the water pots in the era before the fridge, chillers & freezers. Looking back it seems like magic now, when a “Chembu” full of chill potted water appeared at the sound of , “Anna/Acca …thanni!”
The Pot makers of Perunchelvavillai
Perunchelvavillai village has a closely-knit community of potters who have been molding clay into pots for as long as memory goes. Apparently, the raw material came free from the Vembanur pond and the industry grew around it. “We used to collect clay from the Vebanur pond. But that was long ago,” says Babu Raj, “now we fetch it from far away places, due to the restrictions on sand mining.” Sometime ago, Babu switched to driving an Auto rickshaw for hire due to dwindling prospects in the family profession of pottery. The lack of regular income now from pottery has forced many to look around for jobs that have taken them away from pottery.
The rest of Babu Raj’s family including his brothers and their women folk too still employed in the making of pots. They have to travel far to collect mud from the drying pond beds of Chenbaharamanputhoor or elsewhere now. Recent Government policies did nothing to favour the plight of the shrinking pottery industry despite a 1977 GO granting permission to reserve the ponds and other clay beds for the pottery manufacturers.
After the crackdown on sand-mining, it’s becoming harder to get the clay rich soil for pottery laments Babu’s brother Iyappan. In the village, of 30 families only 15 are now involved in the profession. The rest of them have migrated to other professions.
How the woman shapes the pot & it’s not just a Man's job
In most of the Potters houses in Perunchelvavillai, the women in the family too sweat it out with their men in seasoning the clay, beating the pots to shape, in polishing & in the firing it in the kilns. The labour is divided like in a factory chain and each fits in to complete the process. Before the clay is put on the wheel, it has to be stamped or seasoned into a flexible mould that could be worked with on the wheel, which most often a man’s job.
From raw clay to a useable pot, their making is a long process starting with the selection of clay, seasoning, trimming, molding, painting and finally burning the pots in the kilns. While flowerpots require more sand in the mixture, for cooking pots the clay & sand is mixed in a different proportion. One chatti (mason’s basin) of soil is mixed with a quarter chatti of manal (river soil), and stamp down with the feet until it becomes pliable and silky.
Air bubbles trapped in the clay are the Potters worst enemy. So it is stamped out of the mix and the clay mixed to uniform consistency. Small portions of the mix are sliced off & thrown onto the wheel for the Potter to work on.
On the wheel, the clay takes the shape of a cooking pot or a flower pot, which is decided upon by the proportion of the sand-clay mixture with more sand added in the case of thick skinned flower pot. If you had sat yourself before the wheel you would have a fair idea of how many years you would need to master this art to let the mud grow tall between your palms. A professional potter makes it look so simple.
Here is how mud grows tall
On the wheel, the mud sprouts like a flower under his palms; rises willingly, gracefully in his hands while he caresses it to shape, thin and thick, curvy or straight. His fingers ease over the edges, pinching rotating mud to brims & rims. He rubs his open palms to feel for dents & bumps he dint make and shapes it into soft flowing curves you’ll buy to own.
Finally, he slices the bottom of the pot from the wheel with a thread and leaves the bottomless side walls on wooden planks to dry. On partial evaporation of water, the women pick on from there and start beating it to shape. The drying mud wall is flattened with the flat wooden spoon and granite/stone tools which the women of the house do with poise & polish.
The pots are then painted in red ochre and burnt in kilns for a finished product. A few families together own up & share a common soolais (firing Kiln) in Perunchelvavillai. The polished & painted pots are lined with straw, coconut husks and firewood at the kiln before the fire. It takes around three to four hours for the entire stock to harden and the fire to die out.
How long the potters of Perunchelvavillai will remain in profession & not turn into auto drivers & loadmen in Vadasery market is a tale time will pen. While the demand for stylish glazed clay vessels is high in city showrooms, pottery as a profession seems to be dying. Unless these artisans make necessary value additions to their produce or explore market niches, this old craft will not find many takers in the era of Engineering.
Oh yeah! Professions like these would live longer if they found your patronage too. From Terracotta Garden Lamps to Pots of all shapes and sizes, even figurines of local deities used at the Pooja can be ordered or shopped for at Perunchelvavillai. Start a healthy lifestyle at the price of small cooking pot @INR 20. Call Babu Raj 9842221943 to order your own customized flower pots & Cool, retro, healthy Cook ware.
Take this as a reminder to bring back the times of slow cooking into your life lifestyle whenever time permits or better, make it a habit. If like me, you have a vivid memory of why & how you salivated at the smell of Pattimas Meen Kulambu (Grandma Fish Curry) boiled with drumsticks, half ripe mangoes & Kodam-puli tasted so rich and flavorsome even two days later with the Palaya Kanji (Rice fermented in water overnight) …tell us your story & leave us a recipe or two on your adventures of cooking with/eating from earthen ware.