The curious case of ceramic ware

cups & pots

The curious case of ceramic ware

The delicate peach and blue ceramic wind chimes tinkle gently in the cool November breeze as I enter a shop ablaze with colour.

Mango yellow, midnight blue, lemon green, earthy brown, jet black... a plethora of colourful pottery makes me stop, wonderstruck, like a child in a toyshop. A pretty, teenage girl emerges from the interior of the shop to ask what I am looking for. “Teacups,” I mumble vaguely, even as my eyes sight a plump, yellow teapot. “Aah, cups of tea from that cheery pot would make the grey cells work faster while struggling with words,” I reason, trying to justify buying more than what I had planned to.

“The yellow teapot and some mugs,” I tell her. “Which ones?” asks the teenager as she waves her hand towards shelf upon shelf of mugs, in different shapes, sizes and colours. Confused, I do a quick run-through of friends who may like their Arabica or Darjeeling green in one of these, and say, “Give me an assortment of 12.”

Mamta packs them all expertly and totals the bill in a jiffy. Striking up a conversation with the youngster, I discover it’s a trio of three women who run this delightful shop — Mamta, her mother Roshni, and sister Meenakshi. Her father does the sourcing of the wares at Khurja, a town about 85 km away, known worldwide for its amazing pottery. (The history of Khurja dates back to the time of Mohammad-bin-Tughlak, when potters relocated from Delhi to what was then a non-agricultural, swampy hamlet.)

Mamta and Meenakshi are the third generation in a family of erstwhile potters on this street in Saket, New Delhi, opposite the Press Enclave residential blocks. “My grandparents came to Delhi as labourers,” recounts Mamta. “At the time there were fields and forests here. After some time, to make ends meet, they started making clay pots and lamps, like the potters of the neighbourhood.”

But, when the fields gave way to residential colonies, the pollution from the furnaces caused the government to clamp down on them. Forced to shut down their bhattis, the potters turned to retailing Khurja ceramics.

Surrounded as she is with vibrant pottery of all kinds, I wonder what kind of cup Mamta drinks her tea from? “I have grown up amidst these colours, so I have no favourites,” she replies, matter-of-factly, and points to a simple, brown-striped mug. What she is more interested in is her studies. Multi-tasking from as far back as she can remember, she has attended school, and to customers in the shop after school hours. Now she is preparing for a degree in Commerce through a correspondence course. Meenakshi, who has graduated and done multi-media courses, helps out at the shop and gives tuitions as well. Clearly the two sisters have moved beyond their mother who still pulls the ghunghat over her face in the presence of her in-laws.

Two shops away, Kalwa Ram, almost 80 years old, is warming his limbs in the early winter sun. More than five decades ago, he left his village in Rajasthan to make a living in the capital city. He is one of the early potters on this road and can recall the times when he and his wife moulded ghadas, surais and diyas out of clay. “When my bhatti was shut down, I started selling ceramics from Khurja,” he explains.
Clearly, the switch was profitable because he now has employees to deal with the buyers who flock to his shop.

Refreshingly, the shop is named after his daughter, Santosh, an adopted child. Large, outsized cups and saucers at the entrance attract buyers who range from tourists to hoteliers, ethnically-inclined interior decorators and housewives. From this patch of the street, planters, kundis, exotic ovenware make their way to upmarket addresses where rogan josh might appear on a well-laden table in a saffron, ceramic khadai from Kalwa Ram’s fascinating shop. A cheap, red carpet clads the staircase that leads up to his residence where his wife is making rotis for the family. The carpet is a symbol of their well-being, acquired through sheer hard work.

Sourcing, transporting and selling ceramics is fraught with risks. Mamta tells you how some of the items packed in Khurja get damaged by the time they reach them. “We cannot say whether chipped items were packed in the crate or they got damaged on the way, but the loss is ours.” While Kalwa Ram now places orders on the phone, Mamta’s father sets out for Khurja before the crack of dawn; and spends an entire day selecting items from the different manufacturing units there.

A few kilometres down the road, a whole new world of humongous shopping malls has come up, but the potters have managed to hold their own despite the stiff competition from the glitzy, air-conditioned shops in the latter.

And, even as I type this, I pour myself another cup of tea from the plump, yellow teapot that has become an intrinsic part of my mornings...

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