India’s enchanting pottery


There is something sacred about pottery, humble though it may be. From earthen lamps to more sophisticated, glazed varieties, pottery is a fascinating and colourful part of our handicrafts. Kusum Mehta potters around this colourful world.

Text: Kusum Mehta

Pottery has been called the lyric of handicrafts because of its irresistible and universal appeal. But it is the association of religion with this very humble object that has given it a deeper significance and wider dimension.

A water pot filled with water has, from time immemorial, been a symbol of good omen, and is indispensable in any ritual. A variety of earthen objects are used in rituals, like lamps, earthen drums, flower vases, musical instruments, etc.

A pot being shaped

A pot being shaped

Domestic pottery is in profusion and found in innumerable shapes and sizes, and is inseparable from any Indian scene. The common earthenware is unsophisticated in that it is that free of eccentricity and artifice. The shapes are organic, simple but attractive, and true to the material.

Pottery from various states
In Bengal, surai, the common jug, is not made on the wheel, but four pieces are joined together with a decorated disc for the top, an ordinary one for the lower part, and the base. The neck alone is made on the wheel and attached to the body.

Delhi has a very old tradition of its famous blue pottery which is very distinctive. The base is powdered quartz mixed with gum to make a kind of soft paste to be moulded, and is vitreous and semi-transparent. While the products turned out have a Persian flavour, it is in reality quite original in its composition, claiming kinship with porcelain.

The Jaipur blue pottery is equally famous, but is quite unique, for the base is prepared out of the material from which the slip is made, and no clay is used. It is perhaps the only pottery produced without the use of clay – a couple of factors rather simplify the procedure. One, all the materials that go into the composition, quartz, raw glaze, sodium sulphate, fuller’s earth locally known as multani mitti, all require the same temperature, and the pottery needs to be fired only once, unlike other pottery. The other is that the slip does not develop any cracks. It is also more impervious, and therefore more hygienic for daily use.

The Kagzi pottery from Alwar

The Kagzi pottery from Alwar

Rajasthani pottery has certain distinct characteristics. The mouths of water pots are small, probably to prevent spilling when water is being carried, a natural precaution where water is so precious. Their shoulders are painted in black and white patterns. Alwar is noted for its paper thin, almost sheer body pottery, known as Kagzi (paper) Pottery, which has distinct roots as proved by excavation finds. The painted pottery of Bikaner is tinted with lac colours to which the gold shade is added. The Nohar Centre of Bikaner is famed for its products.

In Uttar Pradesh, Khurja has evolved a style of its own by raising the pattern with the use of thick slips into a light relief. It also works out its own shades in warm autumnal colours like orange, brown and special light red. Floral designs in sky-blue are worked against a white background. A speciality of Khurja is a type of pitcher like a pilgrim‘s bottle decorated within relief by a thick slip.

Rampur surais (water pots) are noted for their uniform green-blue glazes with plain surfaces, the base being prepared from red clay. Chunar is also famous and at one time used to glaze its wares with a brown slip, interspersed by a number of other tints. Excellent water containers are made in other parts of Uttar Pradesh, like Meerut and Hapur, which are both turned and moulded. A very special kind of earthenware peculiar to Nizamabad, Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, is distinguished by its dark lustrous body.

Kangra in Himachal Pradesh is rich in clay wares all through the valley. They are mostly black or dark red but in a wide range, all for domestic use, traditional in form and most attractive.

The unique Jaipur blue pottery

The unique Jaipur blue pottery

Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat are noted for their earthenware both in shape and in decoration. All the richness one sees in the textiles, lacquerware, beadwork is equally exhibited through this humble clay medium. Banaskantha merits mention for its artistic water pots, skilfully decorated. Vidi, a small hamlet in Kutch, abounds in clay and contributes to the manufacture of this soft white pottery. Saurashtra has a clay called Gopichandan because of its likeness to chandan, or sandalwood paste, when it is tempered with water.

Potters from Gujarat, who have settled down in Mumbai form a big colony at Dharavi called Kumbharwada.They make many new functional items, but the traditional base is retained because of their attraction and popularity.

Goa’s earthenware with its deep rich red velvety surface, has a charm and style of its own. Apart from a large variety of domestic ware which include attractive water and flower pots which are a speciality, a wide range of figures and panels are made.

The southern pottery
Khanapur in Belgaum district of Karnataka is known mostly for its large-sized containers and jars,and a variety of articles for storage and preservation. Because of the excellence of the local clay, a thin variety of pottery has evolved with design, etched or stamped on the body.
The South has several centres of noted glazed pottery. Vellore in North Arcot has black and red wares. Usilampatti in Madurai district has black pottery painted over with a special yellow substance which has an old tradition. Panruti in South Arcot is famous for a large variety of clay work, large and small figures of deities, toys, etc., and Karigiri in South Arcot is the most famous.

In Kumbharwada, Mumbai, where migrants from neighbouring Gujarat state make earthen pots and lamps

In Kumbharwada, Mumbai, where migrants from neighbouring Gujarat state make earthen pots and lamps

Karigiri pottery is unique in many ways. The base is local semi–vitreous white low fusing china clay with high plasticity known as ‘namakatte’ as it has been used to make the nama or caste mark. After it is washed, it is put into moulds to drain out excess water. When it reaches the required consistency, it goes on the wheel. Intricate items are made in parts and then joined.

Pottery from Karukurichi in Tirunelveli district is popular. It is technically superior and with novel and attractive shapes. Red grey and black clay are used for the base. The clay body looks brighter after a coating of red ochre.

One may say that the most unlettered of potters display an innate sense of aesthetic qualities.


Kusum Mehta

Kusum Mehta is a Jaipur-based freelance journalist.