Crafting Clay – With Love

Moulding hands

Originally published in the Lanka Woman Magazine (Print Edition)

Gala Hitiyaga Nalini hails from a family that has been crafting earthenware pottery for generations immemorial. In her late sixties, today Nalini spearheads the production of pots at her family home which she inherited from her father. Her husband and two of her children assist her in various ways at their home-town Kumbalgama, in Weligama.

Pottery is one of the oldest skills of mankind. Here in Sri Lanka traces of ancient pottery date back to pre-Vijayan times. In this backdrop, inhabitants of this Island have been crafting pottery right from the beginning of civilization itself. This is Nalini’s story.

Kumbalgama Tradition

Kumbalgama (disambiguation: kumbal – pottery, gama – village) is a small village in the heart of the South in Weligama. It is situated just before Mirissa approximately 155 km from the Colombo Fort. Taking the Southern Expressway it takes about 1 Hr and 40 minutes to get there. The Lanka Woman team set out on our quest to explore the well known pottery village, and reached Kumbalgama at round 10 a.m. Our task was to find out more about the life and times of the traditional pottery crafts people of Kumbalgama. We stopped by the Hambanthota main road alongside a row of pottery traders and struck up a conversation. We wanted to find a place where pots are produced in the traditional way. Soon directed to a locality where several pottery families resided, we found Nalini’s home just as she was starting the important ritual of smoking a batch of pots. She was generous with her attention and talked to us while she worked assiduously.

“There were about sixty families turning out pottery in this area” she tells us as she piles up the kiln with the next batch of brand new pots. “Most of them have given up now and only four or five families are producing pots around here”. In Kumbalgama, needless to say, pottery is the trademark produce. It is well known for household pottery of all kinds and Nalini crafts their handmade pots by herself. Her son and eldest daughter help in their family business. Meanwhile her son also takes hires as an alternative income earner. He and his father contributes to the business by producing earthenware ornaments such as lion and elephant figures using moulds which they themselves produce. Her other offspring have moved out of their ancestral craft and onto other occupations like so many inhabitants in Kumbalgama. Some of them work in garment factories for example. Their lifestyle is simple and they must carry out alternate jobs to make ends meet. Today pottery does not earn them much and the hard truth is that they cannot be certain that the next batch of pottery will turn out without any defects. Many is the time they have had to throw away an entire batch that were faulty. Pottery with defects are a sunk cost. Mostly the defects are cracks that occur due to stones or imperfect clay. When that occurs, they must bear the loss and go on as they cannot recycle already baked pots. For Nalini and her family, the road ahead is not very promising. Helpers are hard to get by, or not at all, “And anyway, we cant afford the rates they ask for these days” Nalini’s daughter interjects. She is busy mixing the clay to help her mother prepare the pots for smoking. She appears to be the general assistant to her mother.

The Hurdles

Nalini tells us that they are apprehensive about the permits they must obtain to bring clay from Tangalle. It costs about Rs. 20,000 to transport the clay from the source excluding the cost of the clay. But the main hurdle they are facing is declining raw material due to government regulations. The clay they use for their productions come from reservoirs and tank in the Tangalle area. Run off water from cultivation areas are collected in reservoirs in the form of silt and clay, and this clay is dug up for pottery manufacture. Dredging reservoirs is important to maintain the water capacity and avoid spillover of reservoirs during rainy season. However the authorities are concerned about over exploitation of resources, which causes negative environment impacts.

Meanwhile, Nalini worries about the challenges ahead. Her family produces many household items including small milk pots, rice pots, pots for religious rituals, water pitchers (guruleththuwa), cooking pots, tiny oil lamps, vases, elephant and lion shapes, portable kitchen furnaces among others. Most of these items are produced on demand to reduce losses. Special orders are accepted, like when they were recently approached by a client to make a set of special covers for Paththara (a clay bowl used by priests) for a dāna (alms-giving) for reclusive priests of forest based Āranyas. Nalini’s family is proud of their own little contribution in this important religious offering. The potter folk do not sell their wares directly, result is that the retailers sell the products for more than double the price.

How it’s done

Nalini piles up about a quarter of the large kiln located in their front yard with their most recent batch of pots which is ready for baking. She uses damaged milk-pots to hold the sides of the pile. The pots must be covered entirely with a layer of straw and with a layer of clay on top to prevent any smoke or flames from escaping. This time the kiln is only a quarter full, so she must reinforce the side to prevent the smoke from escaping. It takes time and she must do it fast to finish it in one go. It is a task that must be carried out without interruptions. She packs handfuls of clay in between gaps to cover them entirely., then she places dried straw on top. On that she places another layer of clay with her hands, gently spreading it evenly to cover the entire pile. This is the ritual they perform every time a new batch of items are smoked. Smoking goes on for two or three days, depending on the output, and then only does the baking commence where the kiln in full flame for four to five days. This batch however is small, so it will be ready for burning the next day itself. They use Dahayya (paddy husk) to fuel the furnace. They have been using this method for generations.

Nalini packing the furnace with an outer layer of straw and clay to prevent heat-loss fro within while the clay pots bake.
Nalini packing the furnace with an outer layer of straw and clay to prevent heat-loss while baking clay pots.
The whole family chips in, and Nalini’s daughter helps her with mixing clay, filling fuel into the furnace, and heavy work that Nalini is unable to do, due to her age.

Nalini then asks us whether we would like to see a clay pot being moulded, and we readily agree. She collects a lump of clay from pile in her front yard and starts to knead it assiduously like dough, mixing in water occasionally. She then carries the ball and places it on her mechanised potters wheel, turns it on and gently crafts a pot while we watch her in a trance. Making three or four different shapes, she demonstrate her art to us. Nalini would have been an excellent teacher, I imagine while I observe her.

Nalini, a pottery maker in Kumbalgama demonstrating her skills at the pottery wheel.

There is a whole batch of rice pots waiting to be ‘shaped’ in her front yard and she must attend to that next. But Nalini takes the trouble to show us how she does it, step-by-step and gratefully we watch her do it. She is proud of her ability and she is quick and efficient at her work. Making three pots of different stages, she aptly illustrates the different stages of the ‘shaping’ process.

Nalini beating the pots into shape, which requires specialist skill and patience.
The three stages of a hand-shaped pot, and a job well done.
The three stages of a hand-beaten pot (from right to left), and a job well done.
And this lot waits to be completed, by the end of the day.

Her husband who is close by, tells us that the manual pottery wheel is far more superior in crafting pots. “You can control the speed, so the manual pottery wheel can turn out many more shapes than the motored, one which has but a single speed” he explains. We are appreciative of the knowledge and skill of these simple folk who carry on their trade despite the many obstacles, which they face with dignity.

Nalini’s husband and business partner helps the business by producing figures out of plaster moulds.

No ‘Kili’, please

The pottery folk are also strongly superstitious. It is a common belief among them that funeral houses or weddings carry Kili (tainted vibes) and that affects their production in a very destructive way. They claim that when this happens the entire batch of earthenware is affected by the ‘bad vibes’ and turn out with defects. In fact, they are so terrified of this occurrence, that they pay close attention to any local events and dissuade any visitors and stay away themselves. A pile of broken pots lie next to the kiln. “We had two funerals in the area these past few days” Nalini informs us “and that batch of pots was a total disaster” she grumbles.

A dying tradition?

The tradition of pottery crafting is slowly dying in this region due to the difficulties of obtaining the appropriate clay, as well as other socio economic factors. But Nalini is resolute. Despite a heart condition for which she is required to take medication, she is clearly the master potter in her family setup, and shows no signs of retiring. She is agile and energetic while at work, and there is a calm sense of acceptance that she must continue what her father and grandfather, and many others before handed down the generations. We meanwhile are glad we spoke to Nalini and learnt her story, because she speaks for many women in rural villages who face challenges but chooses to forge ahead regardless. To me, Nalini is an icon of female courage and perseverance as she firmly holds her family crafting tradition and her family together by her sheer perseverance. We thank Nalini heartily for her time, and head back to Colombo inspired.

Assisting the local crafts-people

The Lanka Woman Magazine approached Mrs. Chandramali Liyanage Director, National Crafts Council (NCC), at the Folk Art Centre Complex, Battaramulla to ascertain the national perspective of traditional crafts industry. The NCC comes under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.

In summary, the crafts industry deals with 21 main sectors and a total of 57 crafts including sub-sectors. Pottery is one of the main categories under this classification. NCC provides training, technical and marketing assistance to craftspeople while helping to foster, celebrate, preserve and promote traditions in crafts and artistry of craftsmanship. There are some 25,000 crafts people registered with the NCC, and the Council helps them by identifying their issues and resolving them based on their urgency.

The main challenges faced by the industry are identified as marketing and resource availability. While these are not easily resolved, the NCC looks at each of these issues to minimize them as much as possible for the benefit of the industry. The marketing needs are addressed by partnering with organisations such as the National Design Center which carries out research and development work into new designs and finding new raw materials, and Laksala which is involved in promoting the products. The NCC links the above two organisations in the middle by supplying the crafts people. The resource availability is a much more complex problem as it involved the delicate balance between environmental protection and survival of the crafts industry. The NCC looks to keeping in check the environmental element by working closely with the local authorities to minimise over exploitation of resources which adversely affect the environment. The permit scheme is such a method to regulate the harvesting of raw material from the environment. Although there are a few practical elements that have to be fine tuned, it helps the authorities keep track and manage the resources better.

Women entreprenuership is another key focus area of the NCC. It has been identified that approximately 90 percent of craftspeople as a whole are women, and rural women in particular. Therefore NCC works to empower rural women by upgrading their living standards, at the same time preserving the rural crafts industry as a whole.

Locally crafted pots for sale on the roadside along the southern cost.
New products emerge from clay, driven by market demand
Clay products are not confined to kitchenware, but also include toys, handicrafts and curios
And even pretty jewellery and keytags.
Making beads with clay for a necklace. You can observe the creation live when you drop in at the national Craft Council, Colombo, where award winning craftspersons are given the opportunity to demonstrate and sell their creations.
Making beads with clay for a necklace. You can observe the process at the National Craft Council, Colombo, where award winning craftspeople demonstrate and sell their creations.

One of the highlights of the craft industry is the National Awards handicrafts competition which facilitates craftspeople at the National level. It is preceded by provincial level competitions which the craftspeople face in order to be selected to the national level competition. In 2017 the National Awards were granted Presidential recognition, which is regarded as a great opportunity for the industry. NCC’s main focus is artistic products although utility items such as household pots, described in the main article, and gas ovens are also included. Special relief is provided to traditional crafts families such as Nalini’s, particularly when it comes to raw material limitations.

IDB which is also under the same ministry assists in various ways including entrepreneurship training for the crafts people to help sustain their occupations. There are other organisations that assist in the industry too. However one major problem faced by traditional crafts industry is the reluctance of the younger generation to follow the same family traditions. They prefer the mechanised approach to process the material, rather than the traditional approach using their hands. As such the NCC provides them with automated tools such as motorised cogwheels etc. to encourage the younger generation to carry their family tradition to the future. The products are still done by hand, facilitated by automated processing raw material. The NCC has its showroom at Colombo Dutch Hospital shopping complex in Fort which showcases some of the finest products of the traditional crafts people.

Story & Photography | Nilu Rajapakse

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