Gopalan Ettan is a potter. Just like his father and his grandfather before him he spends his days at his wheel shaping clay brought from the Nila’s banks into bowls and water jugs to sell. There are still plenty of potters along the banks of the Nila; small family-run cottage industries that survive despite of the factory production lines. But when the last of this old generation of potters dies, there may be no one left to continue the craft.
Gopalan takes a lump of clay and begins to knead it expertly while his wife sits on the ground sifting through sand to remove stones. Gopalan’s son perches on the wall beside his father playing with his mobile phone. He doesn’t aspire to be a potter. Who can blame him when he now has the chance to be anything he wants. The breaking down of the caste system has made it possible for this to happen. The problem is that for anyone who did want to become a potter, there is simply no recognition for the work.
Making pottery has generally been a low-caste job and as such, is looked down upon. It’s no wonder Gopalan’s children aren’t interested in carrying on the family tradition when it garners little respect. Interestingly tourism, could in its way, provide a solution. Bringing tourists to watch the potters at work could instigate recognition of the importance of this craft and the skill of its artisans.
Gopalan throws the clay onto the hand-propelled wheel and expertly begins to shape it. Like anyone who’s been practising a craft for a lifetime he moves with ease, completely at home at the wheel. His thin sinewy arms deftly move around the clay forming it quickly and efficiently into a water jug. He puts it aside and immediately begins work on another lump.
As I leave I am told that the word ‘kusavan’ in Malayalam means creator but is also used to describe a potter. I’m not at all surprised. This is an ancient and important trade and I hope Gopalan isn’t one of potteries last master artisans.
Note: A blast from the past. This article was written in 2009 by Jessica Lee after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder