For the last fifty-two years, Ghulam Mohammad Kumar has been shaping objects on the potter’s wheel, at his workshop, in his grandfather’s house. The seventy-two-year old potter from the Khanyar area of summer capital Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir still recalls how he felt obligated to join his family business of making and selling pottery products.
Wearing striped Pheran – a Kashmiri cloak, and a white skullcap, Mr. Kumar opens the door into his three-storey house to welcome visitors with a smile on his white-bearded, pale, face. Sitting in the living room, he says that he started pottery after his father, Habibullah Kumar, died; as he didn’t want the family business to shut.
One of the artistic traditions, pottery is to turn clay into decoration artifacts and commonly used household vessels like plates, bowls, cups, pots, cups, glasses, tumbaknaer – a popular Kashmiri musical instrument and lamps. It begins with beating the soil, which he gets from different places in Kashmir; mixing it with water and stomping under feet to get clay. He then gives desired shapes to clay on his potter’s wheel. The products are then heated at high temperature in a pit to increase the strength and rigidity; then paint them over before selling.
For the first time, more than five decades ago, Mr. Kumar had begun by trying to groove mud on a potter’s wheel to make a perfect shape of bigw’ear [piggy bank]. “I worked day and night for a week to make it perfect,” says Mr. Kumar. “Now, I know how to make many things.”
Even though the bigw’ear hadn’t turned out to be perfect, his dedication and hard work helped him shape and make hundreds of earthenware products in the coming years. After his father’s death, with every passing year, he shaped into a professional potter, or commonly known as Kraal, in Kashmir.
An aspiring businessman, after passing his high school from Hari Sing High school in Srinagar, Mr. Kumar became the fourth generation from his family to join pottery. Lamenting about his childhood he recalls how Katryu baan’ie – earthenware, was loved by Kashmiris.
Every Kashmiri household, he says, would have earthenware but with time it has been replaced. “Stainless steel and plastic replaced the traditional clay utensils in Kashmiri kitchens over the last few decades,” he says. “People have gold utensils. Why would they need earthenware now? What would they need it for? Earthen utensils were not bad for health like plastic.”
Despite his experience and hardwork of decades, Mr. Kumar today stares at the bleak future of pottery in Kashmir, as his business and health continue to fall. “You just saw me taking medicine for passing blood with urine,” he says, taking a drag from his cigarette. “I smoke secretly now. My family doesn’t know.”
After his death, and those of a few potters in Kashmir, pottery will become history forever. “There is only 1% of it left here,” he sighs. “This will end soon if pottery doesn’t revive. People should recognize this art and learn it.”
Despite such an alarming situation, nobody wants their children to learn pottery, not even him. Like many others, he too hasn’t taught his children – the four sons because he didn’t want them to join a dying business. He thinks if more people, especially the young generation, will learn the art of pottery, “it will survive here after us as well.”
“I have taught pottery to many people and I still want to do it to keep the art alive,” says Mr. Kumar. One among his students even gifted him an electric pottery wheel to reduce his physical exertion on the traditional wheel. “Pottery needs strength,” he says. “Otherwise, it affects your back and neck like it has affected mine.”
To be able to work with health ailments, Mr. Kumar’s strength has been his wife, Beeba Kumar, who continues to take care of him. While the art of pottery is slowly turning into a footnote of history, he wishes to perform Hajj – the mandatory pilgrimage for Muslims who can afford it, with her. Until then, his small workshop, where his grandfather worked too, remains hazy with smoke and the smells of clay.