Manipur’s coiled pottery is singular not only because the items are made without using a wheel or moulds, but also because Manipur is perhaps the only state in India where pottery is regarded as a woman’s craft – the skill of making clay pots is said to be a divine gift bestowed on the women by their Goddess, Panthoibi. In Manipur, tribal Hindu women are traditionally considered to be ‘potters’, and are to be found in large numbers. Less than five per cent of the potters are men.
The fact that basic forms are created without a wheel often permits greater flexibility and diversity in the forms worked out by the potters; equally, the burnished black surface, its starkness relieved only by carefully controlled detailing, is nothing short of stunning. The pottery includes clay objects, chiefly utilitarian pots, used for storing water, liquor and grain, as well as for cooking. Other objects like the hookah or dolls and toys are also made. The husband of Neelamani Devi, a national award winner, says that the first pot was made 1,400 years: the first clay object was a small mug which the king used for bathing. Mugs like that are still made today and used for drinking purposes, establishing a continuity that spans a millennium and a half of tradition, technique and artisanal activity.
LEGEND, MYTH & HISTORY
Jyotindra Jain’s book, Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India, narrates how, in Manipur, the myth of origin in general is related closely to the myth of the origin of pottery. Water is considered to be the primal source of all origin in north-eastern India, and the myth of origin in Manipur follows this particular interpretation.
In the beginning there was no life in the world and nothing existed. Seven suns shone brightly, day and night, and there was water everywhere, surrounded by nine hillocks. It was then that Atiya Kuru Shidaba and Ima Leimaren Shidabi descended from the Heavens to create the world. They drained out the water with the help of a trident and settled in the valley. Soon, they wanted a son to carry on their work. Hearing a heavenly voice that told them to dig out some clay, make a pitcher, and place the pitcher in the centre of the house, facing towards the north, they did as required and offered prayers for seven days. After seven days of prayer they found a male child – golden in colour – whom they called Sanamahi.
Sanamahi shot down the extra suns with his bow and arrows and created various creatures dwelling in water, in the air and on earth. Finally he created a human being. Having completed their task Atiya Kuru Shidaba and Ima Leimaren Shidabi decided to leave. Ima Leimaren Shidabi took seven more incarnations to carry out seven different tasks: Panthoibi – who created the first earthen pot – was one of these seven incarnations.
The skill of making pottery was, subsequently, lost by the women in the age of King Nongola Lairen Palchangba. The pots lost their original shape – and became misshapen and ugly. The king then gave the potters a small green fruit resembling a pomegranate and asked them to shape their pots like it. In this way the skill of making beautiful pots was restored to the potters of Manipur.
Materials, Techniques and Processes
Materials, techniques and traditions have been – and continue to be – passed on orally from generation to generation. Apparently, the making of each kind of pot was traditionally accompanied by ritual and song. Many of these have now been discarded or forgotten. Yaomi Sasa, a national award winner, nostalgically remembers that his grandmother sang while making pottery; however, he no longer remembers these rituals and/or music. Today, Yaomi Sasa organises his pottery workshop along industrial lines, and hires over 15 workers. Neelamani Devi learnt pottery-making from her mother. She works within the norms of tradition, departing from it only in terms of personalised treatment of surface and form. Her husband, who supports her in her work, states that: ‘Women do not know the kiln techniques. Bringing clay and firewood is a task traditionally done by the men.’
The clay mixture used for making this pottery is prepared using a black soft stone that is found locally (in limited areas), weathered rock, and mountain earth called salanali. The stone is ground into dry powder. The earth collected from the mountains and paddy fields is mixed with sand, and then the rock and clay mixture are combined is a 2:1 ratio. Water is then added to the mixture, which is pounded and allowed to stand, thus enabling the clay to mature. The consistency of the clay mixture is important in the shaping and stretching involved in creating coiled pottery. While working, Neelamani noted that the clay in Delhi was different from that in Manipur – it had less plasticity.
The clay is kneaded thoroughly before it can be used. A coil of well kneaded clay is shaped into a slab, and the slab is folded into a cylinder known as chapfu homba to which a base is attached. The pot is then shaped in any style by the hand. The bottom is completed first and then the sides of the pot. The beating process is used to strengthen the pot walls and to enlarge and refine its shape.
The pot is allowed to dry until as hard as leather and then beaten into the desired shape, along with the required size and thickness. The potter holds a small stone anvil against the inside of the vessel with one hand while he/she rhythmically beats the outside wall with a wooden paddle/mallet, stretching the clay into the desired form. The paddle, a wooden bat is one of the most important tools used. By using the bat on the outside and a stone anvil on the inside, the potter expands the shape of the pot and thins its walls. Dextrous potters can sometimes make these walls paper-thin. The spatula-like bat varies according to the size of the object being made. The spatula-like bat is covered with a dense mesh of thin nylon ropes. Bamboo strips are used to smoothen the area being worked on.
The controlled pressure of finger(s) and thumb is critical to the making of the pots. Neelamani often places the unfinished pot on a stool to develop a shape further and goes around the pot, working on it, and in effect becoming the wheel. Rotations are made both clockwise and anti-clockwise. Neelamani wraps a soft wet cloth around the open rim of the cylinder and, gripping it tight with the palm, fingers and thumb of both hands, rotates it clockwise and anti-clock wise alternately. At the end of this process the rim or the collar of the pot is ready.
All in all, says Yoami Sasa’s son (and apprentice), it takes approximately five days to create a piece with dimension of 2 feet x 1 foot x 1 foot. According to him, it takes two days to create the basic shape and form, a day to brush and smoothen the clay, and a day for the piece to dry, before being fired on the fifth day. He holds that the standard firing time is two hours. An open kiln is used to bake the pots. The black colour of this pottery is created, naturally, by the smoke, but also with the help of a leaf – Basania pachyphylla (locally called sahi kuhi) – that gives off a black colour on being rubbed on the pot. The lustrous polished look is imparted by rubbing a particular seed on the outer surface of the pot even before the fire and smoke.
Interestingly, broken pots are also used as tools. The pieces are used to lift freshly made pots and also to make the walls of the kilns. Baked clay bowls are used as moulds. Shards are used to etch designs. Although in terms of technique, Neelamani Devi – like most others practising this particular kind of pottery-making – works within the norms of tradition, she – again like most others – departs from it in terms of working on personalised treatment of surface and form. She manipulates the smoke impressions by strategically placing pieces of dried wood and cow dung and chips of wood at the desired spot. Both in term of form and design, as well as in terms of ornamentation, Manipur coiled potters is a highly personalised expression of the potter’s craft.
Products and Markets
This pottery is essentially utilitarian in that it continues to be used chiefly as vessels for cooking and storage by the local population. However, innovation has found a footing among the makers of coiled pottery and a variety of less traditional items are being created. One of the more interesting pieces was a water filter being made by Soami Sasa. (An essentially urban feature in India, water filters or purifiers are normally made of food-grade plastic or stainless steel.) The clay filter was identical in all respects to its plastic and steel counterparts. It had two chambers placed vertically, one atop another; the top is for unpurified water and the lower one for purified water. A water purifying candle had ingeniously been inserted to link the two in their functional aspect. As Soami Sasa stated proudly: ‘This clay filter not only purifies the water but also keeps it cool’, thus blending age-old traditions of using earthenware jars and pits to keep water cool, with modern needs and mechanisms of water purification.
Owing to the elegance of the forms and the finish, coiled pottery from Manipur is also ornamental pottery, though its visibility in the pan-India market and/or the export sector is virtually negligible. However, the basic function of this pottery remains utilitarian, and most of its market is comprised of local buyers – pots are sold from village to village or are sold to middlemen who sell them in Imphal, the capital of Manipur state. Despite its extraordinary technique and stylistic form, Manipur coiled pottery is increasingly being threatened by the fact that traditional potters are shifting to weaving and other more profitable occupations.