Vishu. An occasion to burst crackers and enjoy a resplendent ‘kani’ at the break of dawn. Kerala’s summertime harvest festival is perhaps a good time to ponder over the dwindling community of potters. Express catches up with Erikulam potters - whose produce is a ‘Vishukani’ speciality in north Malabar - while examining how firecrackers could be dealt with safely
KASARGOD: Vishu -- the Malayalam New Year -- starts with Vishukani, the first thing people witness in the morning. Bright yellow flowers of golden shower tree, golden cucumber, lemon, jack-fruit, coconut, betel leaves and nut, sacred texts, and currency notes all lined up in front of the image of god Vishnu.
But in north Malabar, the Vishukani is incomplete without the painted clay pots from Erikulam. A month to Vishu, markets are flooded with pots from the hamlet in Madikai panchayat. “Unlike earlier years, we sell them all,” says Kamalakshi (60).
She was out selling her earthenware in Kasargod, 40 km from her home in Erikulam, even a couple of days before Vishu.
Kamalakshi is from the Kushava community, whose hereditary profession is pottery. She says around 50 families in her hamlet still make pots, and they earn around Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000 during the Vishu season. “But we are in the last lap. There is not one person less than 30 years making pots in Erikulam,” she says.
Earlier, earthenware were made in Erikulam, Periya, Pilicode, Paika and Bovikanam in Kasargod district. “Today, Erikulam is the last village making pots,” Kamalakshi says.
Back in Erikulam, an arch of Vetakorumakan Ishwaran temple welcomes people to the settlement of the Kushava community. “Our lives revolve around this temple,” says T M Kumaran (63), a master potter. He and his wife Draupadi still make pots and sell them. Friday was their last day of the season. On Monday, a day after Vishu, the entire community -- young men, women, children, the elderly -- would hit the paddy fields in front of their houses to extract clay for a whole year.
Mining is a skilled job, and men and women have to dig as deep as 12 feet before they touch clay. “Once we reach the bottom, we make tunnel at 12ft down to extract clay. The earth can collapse or sometimes we may not find clay at all and abandon the well,” says Draupadi.
Nevertheless, the participation of all the 180 families and their members make it their biggest festival. It can go on for the next one week, says Ajayan K (54), another potter.
But once the soil is trucked and heaped in front of their houses, the elders say, they would never get to see the youngsters. “My neighbour is jobless for the past several months. But he did not come to help me out even during the peak Vishu season,” says Kumaran. His own two sons are in the Middle East, and the youngest son works as a mason.
Inside the tiled-roof house, where Kumaran stocks the raw pots, hangs an issue of an employment fortnightly, selling the lower division clerk (LDC) dreams. Youngsters of the community such as Sanjay (17) and Rajesh Kuttan (30) say they would rather get into farming than pottery. Sanjay says several of his seniors have got jobs in police, schools and KSFE, the government’s chit fund company.
Unlike the boys and the young men, the young women of the community still chip in, say the elders. Janashree (24), who was helping her mother Balamani retrieve the fired up pots from the kiln, says she is pursuing a teacher’s training course now. “Hopefully, I will not have to turn the pottery wheel for long,” she says.
Two houses away, Janani (57) says she would continue to make pots and sell them “as long as she can”. Her husband Appuni is ailing, and they live with her elder sister.
Janani’s nephew Ravi K P (45) is a mason. He says he does not make pots because “we will have to wait for at least 15 days to get the money”.
Janani agrees. “But it is my family profession. I inherited this from my father and I have been doing this since I was 12 years old,” she says.
‘Temple and ritual needs’
She says Erikulam makes pots only for Vishu and for performing rituals in Palakkunnu temple and for Theyyam. The work starts in December and ends in April. “In these five months, I work day and night to earn around Rs 30,000,” she says. After that, she depends on the government’s job guarantee scheme to keep the fire burning in her kitchen.
In 1984, a group of 20 enterprising women in Erikulam set up Erikulam Pottery Centre. Each of the woman took a loan of Rs 6,000 from State Bank of India to raise Rs 1.20 lakh. “It was a huge amount, equivalent to over a crore rupees now, considering we agreed to work for a daily wage of Rs 17,” says K Savitri (50), one of the members.
When she joined the centre, she was 16 years old, the youngest among the group. “Today at 50, I am still the youngest. No new member joined us,” she says. The unit had a kiln, a smokeless furnace, and a well too. The women employed a master to teach them pottery for Rs 800 per month. As per the agreement, the Kanhangad Block Panchayat should have paid the women the daily wages.
But it started defaulting. The business collapsed after six years when their truck transporting pots toppled at Badiadka. “The entire load was shattered, and we never recovered from the debt,” says Kamalakshi, a member of the society.
They had approached the district administration hoping for a waiver but were turned away. “So we pledged our golds to close the loan with the bank,” said Savitri. Her one gold chain and two bangles are still pledged with a private financier.
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