Case studies, Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Organisations, Institutions, Movements

Aruvacode: Livelihood Intervention

Dastakari Haat Samiti

Aruvacode, a small village near Nilambur in North Kerala had in the past been well known for its highly skilled potters. About one hundred families of traditional potters continued to follow their trade of making pots, household utensils and other objects. However a scarcity of clay, firewood and other raw material, the influx of cheap industrial substitutes coupled with a lack of demand for the finished product had resulted in a sharp decline in the economic and social status of the artisans resulting in dire poverty. By 1993 many of the potters had taken to distilling spurious liquor while the women resorted to prostitution.

For the revival of a languishing craft and the dignified survival of potter families of Aruvacode an intervention was undertaken by the NGO, Dastakari Haat Samiti.

Period: March to September 1993
Team: Jaya Jaitly (Project Director)
K.B.Jinan (Chief Designer)
Vishaka (Technical Designer)
Ulasker Dey (Technical Expertise, Regional Design Technical centre, Bangalore).


  • Build a relationship with concerned artisans, villagers in general, local organisations, administrators and local bodies.
  • Train traditional potters to diversify their product range.
  • Link technological and design improvements to a marketing system that would eventually result in a higher income and an improved status for the village.
Phase I
  • Two systematic surveys were conducted on the socio-economic conditions of the potters. The initial survey on literacy, sanitation, other facilities, occupation etc was conducted by the Young Women’s Christian Association followed by the second survey conducted by Dastakari Haat Samiti. In this survey each of the ninety seven potter families in Aruvacode were interviewed. The information obtained included the history of the Nilambur block and the reason for the degradation of the community. The wish by the community to rid themselves of the stigma that was attached to them was also clearly expressed in the survey.
  • It took many visits to Aruvacode before the project was formally initiated in March 1993. Each visit was a step forward in confidence building, mutual identification and trust.
Step 1
  • The potter families who had remained potters struggling through all the difficulties were the first conduit for interaction. Interaction included open community discussions, visits to households to identify levels of skill, motivational meetings for the women to involve themselves in training and production. This was also to explain the project to the people and to select people who could be of help in the running of the project from within the community. Identification of a site to erect the shed, kiln and tank, arrangements for the use of local facilities, short and long term gains were also discussed to ensure openness and democratic functioning. Regular Saturday meetings were initiated as a forum for interaction, and to encourage initiative and leadership to infuse a sense of autonomy and solicit active involvement in the running of the project and to encourage owning of responsibility. 30 minute meditation sessions were also a part of the meetings which was an important component in a community which due to poverty and insecurity was always close to discord.
  • The shed, made of mud brick, bamboo and coconut thatch, was designed to accommodate 60 people and their work objects. The plot rented from a potter was conceived of as being the centre of other activities of the project and community. Clay tanks and a kiln were also prepared close by.
  • A new source for clay was found that was located at a distance of 15 kms, unlike the previous source that was at a distance of 50 kms.
  • The first exposure was to books on design, terracotta and few product catalogues to give an idea of other possibilities of clay – what people in other cultures liked and the various products people used.
  • Teaching the principles of geometry and geometrical designs with patterns drawn without instruments helped to make them understand the geometrical details of work.
  • Recognition of the potential of colour was introduced.
  • During the period, S K Mirmira of Bhadrawati Gramodaya Sangh had organised a potters meeting to discuss the problems with potters. Some of the Aruvacode potters were taken along with K.B. Jinan to participate and share problems and solutions with potters from other parts of the century.
  • Working tables, boxes for transportations & storing and clay modelling tools were made. Electric wheels were ordered.

The children of the community were always at the project site drawing, creating in clay, playing with the created pieces, giving suggestions. The children added a new dimension and infused a fresh wave of enthusiasm.

During the summer vacation of two months all the children in the village joined the project. They were considered as trainees during this period. Films, field trips, puppet shows, story telling were all part of their training.

The women trainers were good at creating circular objects – this shape was easy for them as the food they cooked was often of a circular shape. Once they made the connection with clay they related to the work and with great improvement continually developing their own style. Figurative work, coiling and pinching methods, bead making and jewellery were then introduced.

  • The focus was on making two kinds of pottery – functional and decorative. The trainees were first made familiar and confident in using clay. They were encouraged to observe nature and draw inspiration from it. The emphasis was on giving them an ability to create and not just imitate. They were encouraged to make their own tools as the situation demanded and to use objects from their environment as tools. They were encouraged to design, make mistakes and ask questions. The focus was to create according to their own aesthetic instincts.
  • The trainees initially had a problem with not being taught in the method they expected. However, they soon began to enjoy the innovation. Gradually the emphasis changed from form to the finish. Their autonomy in conceiving, executing and in taking care of the objects increased. Confidence in their ability to handle clay had begun to be reflected in bolder ideas. The designers made objects alongside, and this was also an important source of learning. Firing also became a part of the training as was arranging wares in the kiln and actual firing. Some of the objects were fired black.
  • The focus of the training in the latter stages became more market oriented. The trainees were encouraged to define the use, understand the drawbacks and analyse packaging problems before making the objects. This was important as the potters had never packaged for long distance sales before. Old cardboard cartons were bought from shops and recycled, with the ware first packed with hay.
  • Towards the end the training became more products oriented. The trainees selected six to seven products for production and it was decided that 4 days would be spent on selected items, one day for the tiles and one day for creative work. The trainees later became involved in production work. By then each had specialised in different kinds of work. Participation in exhibitions was an opportunity to test the new designs and learn about market needs.
  • The local sales and outlets at Nilambur were not affected by the new products as their traditional demand was for pots for storing water for cooking and for plants – this demand continued to be met.
  • Other sales options were explored. The cities of Calico, Richer and Vernacular were located closest. Other potential markets that were at a further distance were also considered – Coimbatore, Mangalore, Chennai and Bangalore.
  • Four kinds of markets existed:
    1. The local market for the traditional and existing products with minor changes if necessary. However the economic return was not satisfactory.
    2. Bigger towns in Kerala where the aesthetic sense was more towards a machine level of finish even though it was actually hand made, less decorative and not very expensive.
    3. Larger cities like Bangalore and Chennai where the market was aware and the work could be priced higher.
    4. Export was also a possibility.
  • Products were designed for all these markets. The trainees were initiated into the concept of design development taking into account the needs of differing market segments. Products like architectural tiles, lampshades, kitchen and gardens, for office and storage were made. Material that added value like thread and metal ornaments and ornamental bowls were also introduced. About seventy new products with about 100 variations were explored.
  • Aim: To change public opinion of the residents regarding the potters village. It was necessary to communicate that a great deal of creative and useful work was being done at Aruvacode and that the people wanted to change their way of life.
  • Efforts were made to involve state government support for long term and regular marketing. Bangalore was the venue for a huge private exhibition where sales were very good. Contacts were made with architects and private shops for orders.

Towards the end of the program when a fairly large and good range of products had been created an impromptu mock shop was set up. The idea was to create consciousness of a customer-artisan exchange and to create awareness of consumer needs. The mock sales also allowed for comments on each others and their own works – objectively, sportingly and from the customers point of view.

  • A considerable effort was made by the NGO to contact various organisations, stores, architects and marketing agencies to develop potential long term markets.
  • The women also started a movement to shift the illegal arrack shop in the village, as an attempt to show that the village was trying to improve its ways.
  • There were crucial and major expenditures which the potters were unable to afford: both presale and at the sale – such as capital for raw material and fuel to produce goods for sale, the packing and transportation, the cost of stall or rent. It was felt that a short term loan, a revolving fund and other such solutions were mandatory before they could stand on their own feet. Training, up-gradation of skills, market know-how, new designs, and products could not be translated into economic survival unless some initial credit was also available. It was felt that that it was very difficult for a short-term project team to monitor such developments on along term basis unless there is continuous motivation and an organisational support base to guide, support and organise firm market links.

The main efforts of the project were in revival of the skills and the dignity of the village. The most important activity needed in the future was to develop regular markets for their products and for the potters to learn the intricacies of the market mechanism External support was still required especially in marketing.

Phase II

K. B. Jinan returned to Aruvacode, formed an NGO called Kumbham, and started a design and marketing project of terracotta suited for the modern context. The product ranges created with the Aruvacode potters included objects for use in architecture, in homes, offices and gardens. Jinan moved into the village overseeing and designing the products. He stayed on in the village even after the project was over to help put the potters on their feet. ‘When an entire village proves that it wants to turn over a new leaf, it is a civilised society’s responsibility to respond with sensitivity.’

Over the last few years many products have been created and marketed which are notable for their form as well as function. Kumbham products now find wide acceptance in households, corporate offices, hotels and resorts.


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