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Fewer young hands embrace India's pottery tradition

Mumbai (India)IndiaPension and WelfarePoliticsInterior Policy

Still sweating from playing cricket with friends, Hitash Savaniya turns his attention to the lump of wet clay before him.

His fingers gently probe and push, and within a few minutes, the 12-year-old coaxes out from the sodden mass a vase, a votive lamp and a plump little pot.

His father's face suffuses with pride as he surveys his son's handiwork.

"I was the same as a kid," Ramesh Savaniya says, looking over his son's shoulder. "That's how I learned."

Savaniya comes from a line of potters. He and his three brothers learned the art from their father, who learned it from his father. They are members of Mumbai's famous potters colony, Kumbharwada, an enclave of artisans that has been producing earthenware for a century.

But Savaniya, 40, doesn't want his two sons to follow in his footsteps despite Hitash's budding skills. The job is too labor-intensive, smoke from the kilns gets trapped in his lungs, and business has been faltering in recent years.

"I can barely manage my expenses," Savaniya says. "I want my sons to go into something else."

It's a common sentiment among Kumbharwada's potters, who, like parents everywhere, want their children to have better lives. But as an increasing number of youths heed their parents' advice and pursue other careers, there is growing concern that a traditional craft may be dying.

Many of the colony's young men -- the art is usually passed from father to son -- have left to seek their fortunes as merchant seamen. Others accept posts in India's growing service economy, preferring a shop assistant's job to the arduous work of preparing, molding and firing clay in much the same fashion that their great-grandfathers did when they first arrived and founded Kumbharwada decades ago in Dharavi, the nation's largest slum.

Most of those original potters migrated here from the western state of Gujarat, back when Dharavi was still a sleepy community of fishermen on the northern fringe

of the city then called Bombay.

Although their descendants

were born and bred in Dharavi, which has since morphed into a shantytown of about half a million residents, the sounds of the Gujarati language still float through the maze of studios and homes in Kumbharwada.

To walk through the colony is to navigate a terra cotta landscape littered with almost every kind of container imaginable -- flowerpots, water jugs, candleholders, cremation urns. There are fat vases and skinny vases. Some pots have gaping mouths, others pursed lips. Stacks and stacks of ceramic cups await delivery to the railway system, which serves thousands of cups of tea a day.

But India's modernization and the increasingly affluent lifestyles of its people are cutting into the demand for the potters' work, not boosting it.

"People have refrigerators now and don't need clay pots to store water," said Meena Savaniya, 33, who helps her husband roll out the clay for each day's creations. "They also have plastic containers."

About 1,200 potter families live in Kumbharwada, said Dhanshukh Shiva Parmar, president of the local potters association. Most of their wares are sold in Mumbai, though the colony is known throughout India. One rough estimate puts annual turnover at about $1.5 million.

In a good month, Savaniya pulls in about $150 working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. To help the potters, the government has begun issuing special ID cards that identify them as artisans and entitle them to state support such as training, health and pension plans. About 500 cards have been issued so far.

The potters are also worried that a plan to convert Dharavi from a crowded slum into a neighborhood of sparkling apartment towers would deprive them of the space they need to pursue their livelihoods. The architect of the redevelopment project insists the potters will be given enough room to work, but residents remain wary and hostile.

"Our work as potters means we have to be associated with the earth. We can't live in high-rise buildings," Parmar said. "They're trying to snatch food from our mouths, so we have no choice but to fight them."

henry.chu@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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