While driving around past villages in the Pench buffer zone, the stacks of perfectly round water pots on the road intrigued me. Unlike the ones that I’d come across thus far, these didn’t have smooth exteriors. Instead, the pots had a pretty design that seemed to have been printed on top. The pots looked so interesting that I had to stop for a better look. “Do you want to see how they’re made?” said an old lady manning the shop. Of course we did. So she directed us to the back of the shop that doubled as their workplace. A large open kiln occupied pride of place. Here I was introduced to Lakshmilal Sanichare, the master potter. He was busy operating his ancient wheel, turning out pots in less than five minutes. Surrounding him were mountains of water pots, piled one on top of the other, all with the same interesting markings on the outside.
The yard sort of invited some pottering around, and whilst doing that I peeped into a freshly-moulded pot with a big round hole at the bottom. “What sort of pot is this?” I asked. The old potter smiled: “It is a water pot. But it isn’t ready to hold water just yet.”
How could a water pot have such a large hole at the bottom, I wondered? Sanichare explained: “It is well nigh impossible to make perfect globes on the wheel. And if we try, the walls of the pots become too thick, which makes them easy to crack. Instead, we make oblong shapes on the wheel, let them dry for a day or two and then hammer them into rounds.” He invited me to watch one of his sons do this.
He carefully hammered a day-old unbaked pot into a round, going on and on until the clayey walls spread to cover the hole at the bottom. “Covering this hole helps us to ensure that the pot’s walls are really thin,” he said. After the water pot had taken its shape, the potters made a paste of clay, terracotta colour and sand. They applied this to the exterior of each pot using the imprint of their four fingers. “This is time consuming but makes our pots capable of cooling more effectively than regular smooth pots,” said Sanichare. The general air of busyness was palpable. Was there, I asked, a lot of demand for water pots because it was the beginning of summer? “Actually, we are making these to supply to a wholesale dealer in Nagpur,” he said. “He’s placed an order for two trucks full of pots.” No wonder that the place was buzzing like a factory. I asked what the wholesaler paid him for one pot. “Rs 30,” he replied, adding that he could get up to Rs 100 a pot if he sold directly to customers. Then why did he need to supply his pots in wholesale and get a lower price for them, I asked?
“I live for the feeling of clay on my hands,” he said. “Also, I know that I can either make pots, or sell them. I can’t do both. I’d rather take less money from a wholesaler than earn three times as much selling them directly!” Village markets, he said were notoriously difficult to sell in. “The wholesaler pays me less, I know. But he orders truck loads of pots in one go. And what I get is ease of mind and freedom to work my wheel...”he said.
In an era where markets trump producers every time, the old potter gave me hope. For he showed me that it was still possible for a craftsman to produce something just for the love of his craft — instead of always bending to the market forces.