Pachdhar and its Geographical Inheritance
Around 80 kilometers away from Nagpur is the little hamlet of Pachdhar in Seoni, Madhya Pradesh. This village is famously christened after the rivulet Pachdhar passing through the village extending to some forest areas of the Pench National Park. Driving through the NH-7 on either side of the highway, one witnesses a photogenic landscape of deciduous Teak trees, paddy fields, and a cluster of potters practicing earthenware and clay works. Inhabited by approximately 100 households, the village is native to the traditional potter community, vernacularly known as Kumhaars.
This geography owing to its proximity to Nagpur and Vidarbha has a rich composition of earth and soil – with black soil in abundance. Conducive to cotton cultivation, black soil exhibits high moisture retention qualities, and is one of the most superior forms of soil utilized in pottery all across the country. Farmers and potters of Pachdhar, practice this timeless handcraftsmanship as their primary occupation next to only subsistence agriculture. Painted with white and blue, almost every house is made of mud (kaccha houses), has huge verandahs for moulding earth into earthen utilities and beautiful crafts.
Back to basics
Matkis (spherical earthen vessels used to store water), Gamla (flower pots), Gullak (piggy banks), Diyas (lamps), Kulhar (famous chai glasses) are some of the traditional products people master here on manual potter wheels. The process of production is typically organic comprising of mostly natural ingredients, eventually hand-made and shaped – with no mechanical excesses. The basic raw material – black soil is procured in tractors from fields – owners of which are willing to transact. Till recently, potters would excavate fertile soil from the river banks in the vicinity, but the process ceased once that area came under the purview of Pench National Park and its forest reserves. The other raw materials required are red soil for making the distinctive red color; water to mix large proportions of earth so as to obtain a consistent concoction of pure black soil through kneading of clay. Fire wood, cow dung, bricks, broken pots, and hay/husk are materials used to make ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ kilns for ‘bisque firing’ earthenware so as to provide this fragile produce, with high durability.
The potter village economy
A typical potter purchases around three tonnes of soil or a tractor full of earth for Rs 1000. This lasts for around a month and is moulded into around 400-500 matkis on an average. A matki is typically ready in half an hour on the potter’s wheel after which it is dried under the sun for a day. The initial hue is usually a smooth greyish black seemingly delectable to the eyes in the scorching summer months. Thereafter, red soil is mixed with water to obtain shades of red, russet or auburn – the color that typically distinguishes unglazed pottery all across the world. No synthetics or paints are used at this stage.
The next step is to meticulously stack the freshly made works into the traditional kiln in which clay works are bisque-fired into the flames for around two- three hours. The longer the duration of firing the richer the color transmutes into. Typical black pottery, huge globular handi used for cooking lentils and rice is obtained from firing the unglazed works for longer durations. Women from the household usually engage in this part of the process. Once this is done, well defined objects of a reddish brown shade emanate from the kiln that are now durable, robust, color fast and ready to be retailed.
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It should be noted the entire economy of Pachdhar transacts with traders in Nagpur to find profitable markets for their produce. The potters religiously follow market economics and make products which have a mass appeal and are rather commonplace i.e. utilities and necessities used in daily chores. Product diversification is relatively scanty, as there is very little demand for artefacts from this area. The art means instant business here, and follows an activity calendar of sorts. Potters ready their traditional earthen works by Tuesday – the day of the week when the entire village fires these products into kilns so as to sell their merchandise in the Mandi/Haat/Bazaars of the neighborhood that is held every Wednesdays. Any time after Wednesday until Monday, truckloads of earthenware is stacked and shipped from Pachdhar to Nagpur. Interactions with locals reveal that almost all of the produce is sold off to traders who then dispatch it to areas in Maharashtra especially to Vidarbha. Known for its flailing agrarian economy owing to adverse weather conditions in summer, Vidarbha is one of the primary destinations for these survival utilities. This is an interesting aspect of the regional interdependence on resources and occupations among rural communities for livelihoods.
The bulk purchase rates are nominal. Rs 25 for a Matki which otherwise sells for Rs 40-50; Rs 20 for a flower pot and so on. The economy runs on its peak during summer, ironically the time when potters are usually less labour efficient owing to extreme temperatures. An average Pachdhar potter works for around 5-6 hours over and above his subsistence agrarian preoccupations.
Catching up with time
Realizing huge potential of this art form and the imperatives of upgradation in occupation, some potters have forayed into product diversification thereby, breaking a regional monopoly of traditional pottery. Bells and chimes in tune with the more polished terracotta, tea sets, kettle, kitchen ware, animal figurines, mythical murals, and vases are being slowly introduced into the mainstream which is rendering a novel appeal to this otherwise pristine art. Sprawling hotels around Pench National Park are significant customers of these traditional symbols of the rural life, and are primarily drawn to their ethnic and authentic quotients. These products are used for interior décor by some hotels, while others promote and brand these eye catching objects under the aegis of ‘eco-tourism’.
In order to contribute to a state-of-the-art transformation of this region, innovative support systems could be instituted to enhance incomes and minimize time inefficiencies. Provision of electronic potter wheels could be one form of assistance through a participatory-community approach. Skill development programmes in tune with contemporary designs and patterns could be another initiative so as to build human capacities emphasizing on contemporary undertones. Watching potters practice this art en-route ‘potter safaris’, a tête-à-tête with artisans, and participating in workshops celebrating their innate skills – are avant-garde areas of exploration in this regard. Such initiatives will not only increase visibility of these artists to formal markets, but will contribute to confidence building measures, while enhancing exposure of these unsung rural entrepreneurs of Pachdhar, blessed with inherited talents.
Swasti Pachauri is a social sector consultant currently working as a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, India. Views expressed in the article are personal.