Kashmir: artisans fight for survival in dying pottery art



As the rice harvest season draws to a close with the onset of winter, 35-year-old Dilshada Bilal is busy producing pottery, including fire pots and electric heaters.

His modest workshop in the village of Larm-Ganjipora in the Anantnag district of southern Kashmir has a pottery wheel, kiln and storage space for his work.

She lives a few meters away in a traditional Kashmiri brick house. The sparsely populated village is made up of a few dirt roads and a vital stream which is the only source of water for the inhabitants.

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Bilal and his family are one of 27 Kumhar families, a historically marginalized people traditionally associated with the art of pottery, living in the region.

Mother of three children, Bilal has been creating various earthenware objects for nearly two decades.

She learned the trade from her father when she was a young girl. But now most of the new generation of potters are abandoning the occupation.

“Due to lack of demand, this craft is on the verge of extinction. There is hardly anyone who is paying cash for our products,” Bilal’s stepfather Muhammad Jamal Kumhar told DW.

Bilal and his family, however, continue the art of survival.

“Most of us have given up on this profession because it won’t give you enough income to support [a living]. But my family had no other way to generate income – albeit meager – so we continued, “Bilal told DW.

Kashmiri pottery on the verge of extinction

According to Adil Zubair, assistant professor of history at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, pottery as a craft in Kashmir dates back to the Neolithic settlement between 3000 and 1200 BC in Burzhome, a suburb of Srinagar.

In rural areas of Kashmir, clay utensils are still used for water and grain storage. Traditional clay musical instruments such as the Tumbakneer (goblet drum) are still widely used.

Kumhar, 70, says his family – like many others in Kashmir – have been associated with crafts for centuries. His grandfather taught him pottery from an early age.

However, as modern kitchen utensils replace earthenware, Kumhar says the lack of government support to facilitate innovations in their crafts has led to its near extinction.

“Now our children have different jobs and become drivers, carpenters, among others, to support their families,” he says.

Zubair warns that the decline of Kashmir pottery is irreversible due to the introduction of metal and plastic utensils.

“It’s out of fashion, and now the government has introduced workshop pottery where decorative cups and mugs are made, but it’s not a traditional craft,” he says.

Dilshada Bilal’s best-selling pottery works include electric heaters and fire pots (Samaan Lateef / DW)

Survive through barter

Bilal remembers how she felt compelled to continue the profession after marriage and throughout motherhood.

“We don’t own any land, and my kids are growing up, so I have to make a living, day to day,” she said, adding that she spends most of her time helping her stepfather make clay products. .

Kumhar goes around the villages and sells the produce in exchange for rice.

For heating, the villagers pay him 20 kilograms of rice; for a firepot, it gets nearly 10 kilograms.

“Barter is the only way to sell our products to generate income, otherwise we will starve,” he says.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the potters’ community.

Kumhar says the pandemic has further impoverished his family and delayed their social mobility, as public travel restrictions prevent them from entering communities to sell their produce.

The Tandoors offer a glimmer of hope

Meanwhile, potters in the village of Palhallan in northern Kashmir are fighting through thick and thin to keep their tradition alive.

Here, around 35 to 40 families make tandoors (cylindrical clay ovens) used by bakers, restaurants, and hotels across Kashmir and parts of India.

Abdul Rashid, 47, a well-known potter from the village, says the tandoor is the only hope of survival for the dying art of pottery.

In 2005, Rashid’s family turned to tandoor building, which he said provided them with “sufficient income” to support their family.

It takes two weeks to make a tandoor, says Rashid, from molding and shaping the clay to drying in the sun.

His company makes around 150 tandoors a year, selling them 5,000 rupees ($ 67, € 57) each to customers across India.

Afroza Begum, 38, from the village of Manigam in northern Kashmir, says pottery is an art passed down from ancestors and is here to stay.

“Art never dies, it will continue to change shape and survive in various forms,” she said.

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