In shades of blue...

Magic of blues Jaipur tiles are handmade, easy to handle, and don’t develop cracks. Photos by the author

“The most exquisite offers often lie in one’s backyard” goes the saying. This cannot be better elucidated than the blue pottery tiles of Rajasthan. These, often referred to as Jaipur tiles, are distinct ethnic handmade tiles. The art has been handed over from one generation to the next in and around Jaipur, Rajasthan, the number of karigarhs (craftsmen) is dwindling alarmingly.

Although famous in the overseas market as one of Jaipur’s distinctive crafts, the blue pottery tiles, Turko-Persian in origin, found its way to India from Iran through Delhi in the 16th century. Mughals who were in Delhi then did not embrace this art and it got passed on to Raja Sawai Ram Singh I, who was openly looking for craftsmen who would reside in the city.

The patronage that this craft received, especially through the school of art initiated by the royalty, gave the craft its initial sustenance and growth. The lucrative offers and attraction of living in a beautiful city encouraged several craftsmen to learn the nuances of this art form. At the outset, only limited materials like cobalt oxide and copper oxide were used which rendered the distinctive blue tinge to the tiles and hence the name blue pottery.

Ashok Vyas, a craftsman of this tradition describes the process of making these tiles. “These tiles are made of quartz stone powder, salt (saaji), multani mitti and khateera (gum from a tree). The raw materials after being mixed with water are kneaded and put in moulds to shape them. After they are dried, the tile surface is smoothened with sand paper and any cracks that appeared after drying are filled. It is then dip coated white with a thin mix of quartz powder and maida. After drying, designs are created on the white tiles with a brush. Different oxides give off shades of blue, while the yellow colour is derived from a stone.”

Eco-friendly alternatives
The colours on the tiles appear after the firing which is then glazed. With greater awareness on the need for eco-friendly alternatives, lead which was earlier an ingredient of the glazing process is not used any more. An added advantage is that minus the lead, the tiles have turned out more durable.
Jaipur tiles are now available in brown, black, yellow, blue, turquoise blue and green with custom made designs. It approximately takes 15 days to a month for regular designs and about 45 days for new designs to be delivered, including transport time. No order is taken from June – August as all work comes to a standstill due to the monsoon. Rates for these tiles vary based on the dimensions from Rs. 13 for a 2”x2” tile to Rs 130 for a 6” X 6” tile.

The tiles have struggled to stay over the years. The craft has received a lot of patronage including her Highness (Late) Gayatri Devi, who widely promoted blue pottery. In the 1960s, the blue pottery craftsmanship received a much needed boost when Kripal Singh Shekhawat, an internationally renowned artist, entered this field and raised the bar.
However, for a long time, the craft of blue pottery found very limited usage as its product range was restricted largely to bowls, plates and vases.
The decorative lingo in the products was predominantly motifs that were inspired from Mughal era like arabesque patterns, floral, animal and bird motifs. This largely constrained the product range in its variety and expression.
With many craftsmen forced to give up their work, a few organisations like Kala Madhyam and Neerja International have taken on the baton to reinvent and thereby further the cause of the craft.

With geometrical and contemporary motifs in place, blue pottery as a craft has evolved to express through a variety of modes like door knobs, jewellery, coasters and many more in addition to a wide range of tiles.
The biggest advantage is that blue pottery tiles do not develop any cracks, and are also impervious, hygienic, and suitable for daily use.
So the next time you brush them aside as ‘local’, give it another look...often the indigenous holds the key to some really beautiful expressions

(Nandita is an architect, academician,critic and author.)

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