Pottery in the Arid Nochchiyagama (2/2)

Finally, the second part of the article. Sorry for not being able to write this sooner. I was traveling extensively and simultaneously completing a major section of my M.Phil thesis.

This is going to be a slightly long article. So gear up.

How is pottery practiced in Nochchiyagama? To answer the question, I will divide this article into several sections. Pottery making involves many processes, such as clay extraction, clay preparation, forming techniques etc. Let me explain these one by one in the context of Nochchiyagama.

Clay Procurement

Potters in Nochchiyagama extract clay directly from the lake. The top 4-5 inches of the soil bed is yellow-orange and not worth using. Beneath this, however, is good quality mud that the villagers dig and transport using lorries/tractors. Clay digging is an annual process, where all male potters come together and help any one potter extract his share of clay. This is usually done in August/September every year before it rains. Clay is treated as a common resource and divided among the potter families of the village. Clay allocation is according to the number of male potters in the family. Generally one potter gets 5 loads of clay per year (1load=1 tractor/lorry full of clay).

Clay Preparation and Storage

Clay can rarely be used in its natural state as extracted from the ground. More often than not, clay has to be processed to make it suitable for use. Typically, there are two types of modification – removing material from and adding material to clay. In Nochchiyagama, both are required for clay preparation.

Once extracted, the dry clay is manually broken down into smaller pieces. It is checked for stones and other harsh material which are then removed. This mud from the nearby lake in Nochchiyagama is then mixed with another type of sand obtained from the Puttalam district. If enough Puttalam sand is not added, the fired pieces do not have the required strength. They start losing surface clay and eventually crack/break. Such defective pots are not sellable and are broken into smaller pieces to be laid on village paths to make the road more even.

 

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Once the clay is mixed in the right proportion, limited amount of water is added to soften it. This is usually done in evenings when water is added thrice after a gap of one hour each.  The mixture is allowed to sit overnight. The next morning, 1-2 hours are devoted in refining and mixing the clay to achieve appropriate consistency. Clay is thoroughly wedged using feet and applying complete body weight. The prepared clay is covered and stored in plastic sheet.

Forming: Tools and Techniques

Most potters in the Nochchiyagama village work on electric wheels now. Some potters bought their own wheel, while others received the wheels at subsidizes rates during elections.

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The potters practice hump throwing. As much as 50 kgs of clay is centered on the wheel  and then pots are thrown from that hump using very little water, needed just to avoid friction while throwing. The base of the pot is kept open when removed from the hump. This avoids wastage of clay, need for trimming and then re-wedging the trimmed clay. By avoiding re-wedging of clay, villagers avoid another activity which would have required water. When a little firm, the base of the pots is then repeatedly and almost rhythmically stroked/beaten using a paddle and round stone (for support from inside) to bring the edge of the wall in to close the base.

Decorating: Tools and Technique

Pots are kept simple. Most potters do not make patterns or designs on the pots. Some, however, make very minimal additions such as line indentations or impressions from beating paddles with inbuilt designs. Rims are often altered using regular finger movements.

 

For finishing touches, all potters apply a red color coat on the exterior of the pots. While traditionally a natural pigment called ‘guru-gal’ (rich in iron oxide) was used to give this color, these days potters use red die/color (‘sayam’ in Tamil) which is then mixed with red sand from Puttalam and applied to the pot.

Drying and Storage of Pots Until Fired

Pots are dried in shade until leather hard. After beating their bases to achieve the desired shape they are placed besides each other under shade until bone dry. Once bone dry they are then covered with cloth and/or plastic until fired, as direct wind on bone dry pieces tends to damage the pots. Once enough pieced are bone dry, they are not stored for long and are fire.

Firing

Almost all potter families have identical updraft semi-oval kilns, using wood as the primary fuel to produce red ware. A pit in front of the semi-oval kiln is built for firing wood.

The main semi-oval chamber of the kiln has an inclined surface, which is connected to the pit using inclined channels built beneath the chamber. The gradual slope facilitates heat to rise upward through these channels to reach the other end of the main chamber and uniformly surround pots during firing.

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Placing the pots for firing is an act of balance in itself. Many layers of pots are stacked one on top of the other, with fuel (dry coconut husk) and broken pottery pieces (from other firings) placed in between.

The firing is done over a period of 2 days. The first day temperature is raised gradually. Full firing is done on the second day to reach maximum temperature before the firing ends. The kiln is then opened once it cools down.

This completes the pot making process. Pots are then stacked upside down till the time retailers come and collect their orders. Nochchiyagama potters do not go out of town to sell their pots. Pots are mostly made on orders. Since these potters work like whole sellers, they get minimal prices for all their hard work. The craft is associated with low income and status. As a result, next generation of these potters is not keen on practicing pottery, which is now a dying art in rural Sri Lanka.

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