BENGALURU: Sitting in front of her small shop in Pottery Town, located in the heart of Benson Town, Lakshmi (name changed) watches as the only two customers in her store load diyas and a pot into their Thar. As the sun sets on the busy streets of the settlement, which was once recognised as the best place to go to get all your clay needs, Lakshmi recalls with nostalgia how she and her husband took over the shop from his father, and how thirty years have flown by since she started managing the shop.
Pottery Town holds a piece of the city’s history in its narrow lanes, lined with rustic small homes and earthen ware drying outside. Over a hundred years old, the settlement was established by the British, and would be buzzing with business as people didn’t use melamine, steel and ceramic ware back then.
Today, with only a few families continuing on with the trade, the younger generation moving on to other careers, and dwindling raw materials, Pottery Town may soon just be a memory of the city’s cultural past.
Pottery Town directly linked to first railway line
It all started when Bengaluru became a hub for military actvity, says city-based independent historian, Arun Prasad. “Sir Mark Cubbon, who was the commissioner of the Mysuru state from 1834-1851, pushed for a railways line to be made between Madras and Bengaluru. Lewin Bentham Bowring, who followed Cubbon as commissioner, saw over its inauguration in 1864, and this line became the first to connect Bengaluru to the rest of the country via rail,” he says.
This was a turning point for the city’s demography, as it brought in an influx of workers from Tamil Nadu and other neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh, who settled around the Cantonment area in the late 19C.“Land was allotted to the Kumbara community – people who work with clay – by the government, and this was also supported by the royal family. These people are originally from Andhra or Tamil Nadu,” adds Prasad.He says that this settlement, which has a history of over a 100 years, is integral to the cultural identity of the city, and should not be removed.
‘Mostly cater to restaurant industry now’
Sitting in the office of the Kumbara Karakushala Kaigarika Sahakara Sangha, it’s president, S Nanjudappa, says that his family was the first to come settle there, and that he is the fourth generation to take over the trade.“In the olden days, we would sell large water matkas, flower pots and utensils. These days, festive season time - Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi and Pongal are our busiest times. Otherwise, items like diyas and vases are sold most,” says Nanjudappa, adding that lately, it is the restaurant industry that gives them business, as they order matkas for sweets and curd as well as tandoors. He says that 50 per cent of the items are made here, and the rest in villages 10-15 kms away.He says that this trade is one that involves the entire family, as there are different facets to the job that different members handle simultaneously. “There are four kilns in all, and families take turns to fire their goods. If one family does firing today, they can then only do it fifteen days later, so enough items needs to be made to sustain till that time.”
In the olden days, clay would come from the nearby lakes, but now, brick manufacturers are eating away the resources, forcing the potters to get their clay from places such as Kolar, Yellanhanka, Ramanagara, says Nanjundappa.“Back in the day, we would pay Rs 4 to get a bullock cart to transport clay, now we pay Rs 7,000-8,000 to get clay to us by tractor. This shipment comes in once every one and half months,” he says, adding that getting wood for firing purposes has also become expensive and difficult.On an average, a family makes Rs 2,000 to 3,000 a day. “Each year, the prices of items changes, but in the last five years, prices have gone up. A diya would sell for Rs 8 last year, this year we’ve been selling them for Rs 12-15,” he says, adding that both retail and wholesale is done here. Retailers who buy a diya, for example, for Rs 12, sell it for Rs 25 outside.Apart from dwindling raw material, another problem within the community now that’s affecting the business is the competition between families. If one foot is selling a diya for Rs 8, the neighbouring family is selling it at Rs 10.
Younger generation looking outside family trade
Almost all the younger generation of potters we saw had returned from school and still had their bags on. And as Nanjundappa points out, they’re all looking to get out of the trade. “My grandchildrens’ generation isn’t interested in carrying on the trade. They’re all going to school and want to do different things. Apart from a lack of interest, they also don’t see the point seeing how difficult it has become to source raw material.”
‘No place for us to work’
“There were only 40 houses here back then, and there was enough space for the artisans to carry out their work with ease. Now, there are 110 families of potters in all, and no space for us to work. The main cause for this is the slum that came up in the 1970s,” says Nanjudappa, adding that these slum dwellers came in from Tamil Nadu, and were let to stay there for free by the government. “After the slum took over most of the land, we lost our space to work. Back in the day, this was an open space and we could carry out our trade with ease. Now there’s no space to do that,” he says, adding that despite letters being written to the government from 1973 onwards, explaining how their work is suffering due to the occupation of the slum, nothing has been done to rectify the situation.