30th August, 2016.
How did you choose your profession? Entrance ranks, interests, family backgrounds; I am sure many reasons come to mind. For a change, assume none of these existed. Assume that you were surrounded by people following a single profession from the time you can remember. Assume that whatever they were doing seemed worthy and interesting to you. Imagine spending every conscious moment surrounded by that craft. What would you have become? Chances are, you would surrender yourself to that profession. This is probably the best way to explain how Rakesh, Mukesh, and Umesh Prajapath came to be in the blue pottery industry. Both their grandfather and late father were ardent practitioners of this art form. Their mother, grandmother and uncles all practice the same craft. The brothers have never in their life thought of doing anything else.
“My grandfather started it, now my entire family works on this craft. Financially, it may be difficult, but we can never think of stopping it” says Rakesh.
Looking at their work, you can kind of sense why. There is a sense of highly elevated and refined artistry in each piece. There is great pride in their eyes when they explain how each piece was made. They explain at length regarding the innovations they have brought about in the designs. Mukesh points to a lamp and says “We will never sell this, I made this just so I could express myself.” “These plates are modeled on an award winning design” says Umesh, holding an intricately decorated plate with a hidden picture of a queen in it.
Rakesh takes a great deal of trouble to explain the stages involved in the making process. Unlike in traditional pottery, clay is not the substrate. A dough is made of borax, coarse and fine glass particles, a plant based gum, and multani mutti. Once the batter is prepared, the first stage is very much like roti making. The dough is pressed flat (assuming a plate is to be made) or moulded into a desired shape using homemade POP moulds.
A base is then attached to this shape using a pottery wheel. Before the base can be attached, the piece is to be dried in the sun for around 2 days. Once the base is attached, it again needs to be dried for a couple of days.
The piece is then polished repeatedly by adding layers of diluted slurry of maida and various naturally occurring substances. Once dried, a pattern is then painted on to it. The pigments used are derived by mixing ground metal oxides with maida. This job is largely done by the women and the brothers are proud that their mother Shubhavati is an expert at it.
Once the design process is complete, the piece is again sun dried. It is then covered in a glass based mixture for glazing and dried once again. All in all, the piece is dried at least half a dozen times before it is complete. It is then fired in an oven. After being fired for half a day, the pieces are allowed to cool down over the next 3 days.
Oddly, despite being centuries old, the process is hardly automated, except for a motorised Pottery wheel. Even the implements are hand crafted by each artisan. For example, brushes here are made of squirrel’s tail fur and an old pen, while a piece of an old plastic cup is used as a scraper.
Even when everything is done right, it is normal for up to 50% of the pieces to break in the firing process. But what remains becomes a beautiful blue and natural colors shine through the glazed surface.
This is how the famous blue pottery of Jaipur is made. Incidentally, this family came to possess this craft while their grandfather Ram Bahal Prajapath worked in a factory in Delhi. An intelligent and skilled man, he identified the secrets of this craft on his own by trial and error. “I worked in a factory making these pieces. But each stage was carefully separated. There were screens between workers so that no one would understand the whole process. But I figured it out” he says. At 80, he is still very much a part of this business, guiding his grandchildren in every stage of the craft.
His only sorrow is that he is no longer able to do the hard physical labor the craft demands. At present, according to Ramesh Prajapath, there are only less than 100 blue pottery enterprises in Jaipur. Their major competition is mass produced ceramics. Factory made ceramics have largely taken over their market space. It is difficult to compete with a factory that produces hundreds of pieces in an hour when each batch here takes around 10 days. In addition, any blue ceramic is now sold a blue pottery. You start to wonder how it is that 100 people still manage to continue this craft. Another major factor is the financial exploitation involved.
Their own late father worked as a bonded laborer on minimum wages in a blue pottery factory for over 11 years. The family was paid barely enough to survive, and in those years they could manage no savings. However, the three brothers were forced to be enterprising after their father’s death. They cut ties with the factory and started out on their own. The business is slowly growing.
“We managed to build 2 more rooms” said Umesh with pride. Now, the five families (three brothers, two of whom are married with children of their own; their mother; an uncle and his family; and grandparents) all live in this 3 roomed house.
As we look around and recognise the poverty for the first time, 11 year old Sagar, son of Mukesh Prajapath picks up a brush and starts painting a piece. This is already his profession as well.
It is difficult to imagine three generations working on something with dedication and commitment. It is incredibly sad if all they have to show for it is a house with three rooms and around 15 people. It is even more difficult to understand why the next generation would have any interest in the art form.
But once you step into their tiny display room, all confusions and sorrows disappear. There is an incredible amount of beauty in these pieces, you wouldn’t mind just staring at them for hours. Who wouldn’t want to spend their time creating such art, and what father wouldn’t want to gift his kid the same privilege, even if the gift is wrapped in poverty and uncertainty.
PS: The brothers can be reached at Sagar Blue Art Pottery, or at a shop they run near Jalmahal. Alternatively you can contact them at the number on their business card. Do think of them if you are interested in purchasing some authentic pottery. They may not be as professional as amazon, but they do ship their products across India. We can vouch for their packing methods as a lamp and a couple of pots we bought from them have survived a ride to Himachal in our car’s boot.
In addition to blue pottery, the shop also sells intricately carved marble pieces made by Heera Singh, a relative of the family.
We express our sincere gratitude to everyone at Sagar Blue Art Pottery for taking the time and effort to explain this beautiful craft to us and also for letting us visit their factory/home.