It's hard to walk by a souvenir store and not stop to stare at the beautifully made clay handicrafts. Whether because of their intricate designs or simply because of our desire to connect with culture, we take a moment to appreciate the wonderfully stacked clay products in any store. But how long do we stop to think about the artisans behind this splendid work?
Sayka Tabassum, a final year Master’s student at BRAC University, is a huge clay pottery enthusiast. Apart from the obvious charm of beautifully crafted earthen clay potteries, Tabassum also sees their traditional value and environmental benefits. According to Tabassum, “Clay potteries not only have intricate designs, but also represent our tradition. Moreover, they are biodegradable, last longer and do not cost a lot.” She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Development Studies and thus finds cost-effective and environment-friendly solutions very appealing.
Clay vases and showpieces adorn the drawing rooms, especially of city dwellers. Farzana Rahman, a housewife residing in Dhanmondi area, loves clay vases and showpieces as they beautify the shelves, and bring an artistic look to the room. When asked where she usually buys clay vases and showpieces from, Mrs Rahman said, “I get them from Aarong. There are a lot of options to choose from.” Mrs Rahman also added that she buys clay plates and pots during Pahela Baishakh because they bring an ambience to her table serving Panta-Ilish and Bhorta.
The demand for clay potteries persists among people of all ages and professions. One could say that anyone with a sense of beauty has a soft corner for clay items. Zannatul Kobra, a development professional working in Cox’s Bazar, loves all earthen things. From teacups to flower pots, clay materials surround her life.
“Clay pots and utensils soothe me. And I have read that using clay cups and plates has health benefits as well. Drinking from clay pots can boost metabolism.”
When it is about a mini garden at the rooftop or on the balcony, clay pots have no substitution for small-sized tree plantations. The lockdown gave Mostofa Raihan, a 3rd year CSE student at CUET, ample time to get back to his long lost passion for gardening. His 18 sq ft balcony is now nothing less than a luscious garden. And guess what, the mini garden has anything but clay pots for the plants in Raihan’s cherished garden.
“I got my pots along with the plants. Some came directly from the nursery, some from online shops. However, the pots may seem quite costly if you plan on using one for each plant.”
In addition to gardening, many have resorted to painting clay pots and embellishing their surroundings - indicating a high demand for clay potteries. However, does reality draw the same picture?
The Paal family in Dinajpur’s Kumarpara has been in the pottery-making business for three generations. The lockdown set a dead spell for the family. Uttama Rani Paal, a senior member of the family, shared her stories of struggles caused by the pandemic while painting beautiful red coin banks.
“Our whole family is in the business, we all work together to make a living. We are trying to hold on to traditional values and culture, but it’s getting harder each day”.
Shila Paal, Uttama’s mother-in-law, also offloaded her frustration about how the pottery business is dying. As production cost increased taking the price a bit high, she fears sales might fall further.
“This is the last generation that will continue with pottery making; my grandchildren are in school and they will try to find jobs in different sectors since pottery-making is not a feasible option anymore.”
Dilip Paal, Uttama’s husband, has been making clay pots for the last 35 years. He started working with clay when he was six. His specialty is making Haari. “Even just a few years ago, people used to buy lots of Haari to decorate the stages in wedding ceremonies,” said an anxious Dilip.
“I have heard about ‘Sokher Haari,’ which seems to be quite popular in big cities during Pohela Boishakh; however, we have never received such orders. So, I make Haari with my own designs and sell it in retail (as sales have fallen due to pandemic). It would be great to receive orders for such Haari during Pohela Boishakh.”
The Paal family, like all other Kumar families in Dinajpur, does not have any wholesale distributor.
“If we get orders to make something specific in large volumes, we could do that too. The city nursery takes flower pots from us. Other than that we usually sell in retail,” informed Uttama.
The clay shop in the Paal family’s courtyard has countless different items exhibited. From colourful toys to foot scrubbers to plates and jugs, they make everything. Their cheapest item, pradeep, sells at 2 taka per piece and is quite popular. The highest-rated item in their courtyard shop is the 70 taka flower pots. They have a variety of flower pots in different shapes, size and price.
When asked if they are aware that city dwellers like decorating their house with clay potteries, Uttama’s father-in-law Ram Chandro Paal chimed in saying, “That might be the case in big cities, here we don’t see much business. A little rush is seen during Durga Puja and Kaali puja. But that’s all about it.”
Ram Chandro Paal has been in the business for almost six decades and has seen a lot of ups and downs. “There was a time when people were heavily dependent on clay utensils. Those days are long gone, now we just make enough to get by.”
Studying both the buyers’ and sellers’ perceptions of clay potteries show two different pictures. Suppliers are oblivious of the demands of customers. And consumers are oblivious of the source.
People usually buy clay potteries from the nearest shops available to them. However, small-town potters rarely get the opportunity to exhibit their products to city dwellers. Consequently, even though consumers end up buying clay items at an escalated price, it does not convert to profit for small-scale potters. As informed by Mrs Paal, if the ongoing business in small towns does not get a boost soon, the next generation will have no interest in pottery making. And we may gradually lose a tradition that has prevailed for centuries.
Government and development agencies may explore and advocate for connecting such small-scale potters to wholesale distributors and helping our culture thrive. The private sector can have a significant role as well. With online businesses spreading everywhere, entrepreneurs may take the opportunity to weave the thread between supply and demand and bring people closer to our rich culture and tradition. However, it must be ensured that the artisans get their share of credit and are not exploited.