Photo: Neerja International
Photo: Neerja International

Jaipur’s blue mystic battles loss of lustre

The city's famed Blue Pottery is as striking as ever, but as with many traditional crafts, it's future is uncertain

What is common between the Royal Mosque of Isfahan, the Gūr-e Amīr of Samarkand, the Fort of Lahore and the Chini Ka Rauza of Agra? 

Apart from following Islamic architectural traditions, these monuments have glazed turquoise tiles, a Chinese technique that helped develop the craft of blue pottery. 

It became more obvious as I stood looking at the dazzling Chini Ka Rauza in Agra one day in the late afternoon. The mausoleum was built between 1630 and 1635 by Shukrullah Shirazi Afzal Khan, prime minister of Shahjahan, while he was still alive. When Shirazi died in Lahore in 1639, his body was brought to Agra and buried in this tomb. 

The whole monument is adorned with glazed tiles, supposed to be imported from China, which is how it got its name.

Historians believe that blue pottery craft originated in central Asia in the 14th century when Mongol artisans combined the Chinese glazing technique with Persian decorative art. The nomadi Mongols settled down in regions of China, Persia and the Middle East. The Mongol leaders hired artists, who contributed largely to the development of arts and crafts under the Ilkhanid (Mongol) dynasty that ruled Iran from 1256 to 1335. 

It is difficult to say when the making of blue pottery began in India. However, historians believe that the craft came to India with the Muslims around the 14th century and was developed by the Mughals. 

When Sawai Jai Singh I founded the city of Jaipur in 1727, he invited craftsmen from all over the country to Jaipur. Later, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (1835-80) set up a school of art and invited artists and craftsmen to the city.

Legend has it that, one day, Ram Singh II witnessed a kite-flying session between his kite masters and two brothers from Achnera, near Agra). These two brothers were able to bring down the royal kite almost every time. Intrigued, he asked them how they did it. 

The brothers confessed that they were potters by profession and had coated their kite strings with the blue-green glass used for their pots. Sawai Ram Singh then invited these two brothers to Jaipur to teach this craft of glazed pottery at his art school. 

Special privileges lured many craftsmen to the city, and as a result, Jaipur became widely acclaimed for its diverse handicrafts, and famous particularly for pottery decorated with a distinct hue of blue that came to be known as the Persian Blue.

Jaipur Blue Pottery is elegantly simple. Blue and white dominate the eye-catching pieces, and the ornamental vines flow with symmetry and balance.

The craft has survived many upheavals. It had almost vanished and was revived by the efforts of Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, and Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, distinguished freedom fighter and social reformer, who worked to bring about a revival of Indian handicrafts, handlooms and theatre following Independence.

Renowned artist Kripal Singh Shekhawat also revived and encouraged this craft. Shekhawat studied painting at Shanti Niketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s famous art school in West Bengal, and pursued a diploma in Oriental Arts from Tokyo University. Later, he taught Indian painting and blue pottery craft in the Sawai Ram Singh Shilpa Kala Mandir in Jaipur.

Shekhawat received many awards for his contribution including the Padma Shri in 1974. In 2002, the Indian government honoured him with the title “Shipla Guru". He founded Kripal Kumbh in the late 1960s to manufacture authentic blue pottery. Today, Kripal Kumbh is run by his wife Sajjan Kanwar and daughters Meenakshi and Kumud. 

“During the '60s, the response to blue pottery was mixed. Few Indians were aware about it. They were, however, keener on bone china and did not know the difference between the two," says Kumud. 

However, foreign tourists were interested in the craft. “My father was invited to different countries to showcase blue pottery and conduct workshops," she adds. 

“When my father received the national award and honour, everyone came to know about him and his contribution," she explains. Today, Kripal Kumbh sells both classical and new designs of blue pottery.

***

As a child, Leela Bordia used to accompany her mother in her work with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. Later, after marriage, Bordia came to Jaipur. Following her mother’s footsteps, she got involved with social work.

On one such visit to a slum, Bordia discovered some people working in one room. She learned that they were potters, crafting Jaipur blue pottery. This chance meeting brought Bordia into this field. 

“I didn’t choose blue pottery; it chose me," she adds. 

Bordia started guiding artisans on designs. Through her travels to other countries, she found out that decorative products have a limited market. “I realized that a blend of beauty and utility is required to create the demand," she explains. 

After experimenting with technique and design, Bordia founded Neerja International Inc in Jaipur in 1978, one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of blue pottery. 

Other manufacturers of this craft include the Jaipur Blue Pottery Art Centre and the Jaipur Blue Pottery Doraya family shop.

Drafts and craft

Photo: Neerja International
Photo: Neerja International

Jaipur blue pottery is completely handcrafted. It has a tedious and time-consuming process requiring lots of patience. Crafted from special dough, it stands out in that, unlike most pottery, it isn’t made of clay. 

The dough is made from quartz powder, fuller’s earth, scrap glass, katira gond (edible gum) and saaji (soda bicarbonate/bentonite). This dough is flattened and pressed into a mould and set properly by filling with ash and pressing gently to get the desired shape. Any extra dough is scraped away with a knife. Once this is done, the mould is removed by turning it upside down. The product is then left to dry with the ash for one or two days. 

The blue pottery dough lacks plasticity and therefore cannot be hard-pressed on a wheel to make large products. They need to be cast in Plaster of Paris moulds of different shapes and sizes for that. 

Small items can be crafted in a single mould. But complex products may require more than two moulds. For example, a vase needs to be made in four parts. These four parts are then joined together using the dough and smoothened.

The next step involves hand-painting the pottery with oxide colours. Earlier, artisans used to make their own brushes using hair from a squirrel’s tail. This is now banned, and regular brushes available in the market are used. 

Cobalt oxide is used to draw the designs. Other metal oxides are used to fill them in, and they get transformed into bright colours after the objects are baked. Cobalt oxide becomes deep blue, chromium oxide turns green, cadmium a bright yellow, copper oxides give turquoise and iron oxide results in reddish brown.

The design needs to be carried out carefully as these pieces cannot be reworked, and artists cannot be sure if the finished piece would have the exact shade that was planned.

The finished piece is dipped into a glaze of powdered glass, borex, zinc oxide, potassium nitrate and boric acid. When a batch of dried pottery is ready, the items are fired at 800-850 degree Celsius for almost six hours in a closed clay and brick kiln fuelled by wood or charcoal. It is left to cool for three days—any rapid temperature change may cause cracks.

Craftsmen follow certain rituals while making these products. When the products are ready to be fired (bhatti paka), a pooja is performed. Prasad is distributed every time the products are put into and taken out from the kiln. 

The required raw materials are available in and around Jaipur. However, “the raw materials are expensive to get these days", says Kumud. Apart from the oxides used to impart colours, a key ingredient is katira gond, an adhesive that comes from the banyan tree. It’s costly and difficult to get. 

The raw materials and processes too have changed over the years. In the past, the glazed coating consisted of lead but now mostly it is lead-free. In some places, diesel furnaces have replaced the wood-fuelled kilns. Fabric or abstract designs have replaced floral and geometric patterns. Simple and straight designs are preferred.

According to Kumud, there are a lot of changes in the craft in terms of materials used, the designs and shapes. “Some changed during my father’s time and were brought about by him," she adds. 

Blue pottery artisans halt production in the monsoon as the moisture in the air becomes a deterrent in making of these fragile products. It is resumed around Ganesh Chathurthi (August/September), which symbolises the departure of the monsoons.

What do you get?

The craft was once used to decorate palaces, mosques and temples in the past. Today, a vast range of products combining elegance and functionality are available.

Products like achardanis (pickle containers), imperial bowls, egg cups and beer mugs can add colour to any kitchen. Accessories, colourful tiles with cartoons and other designs, doorknobs, tiles with iron hooks for your walls, expression tiles with interesting quotes, cardholders and candle stands make for interesting décor. Iron trivets, beads, jewellery sets and keychains are also available. The prices range from Rs100 to Rs20,000.

Photo: Neerja International
Photo: Neerja International

The craft uses natural raw materials, which makes it environment friendly. Blue pottery doesn't require any special maintenance and can be easily cleaned with water.

Notably, in 2009, Jaipur Blue Pottery was given geographical indication status. This means that only products made using traditional methods from the region can be referred to as such. (Darjeeling tea and Lucknow's Chikan embroidery are among other products in Indian that have earned the GI tag.)

Future’s blue

“Until 2005, about 1,000 people were involved. Today, only 200-300 people are associated (in the practice)," shares Bordia. There are many reasons for the dwindling numbers, she says, like growing preferences for white-collar jobs, increasing expenses and low earning potential from the craft. 

“If the present scenario continues, then, I think, blue pottery will disappear once again," Kumud says. This craft needs to be promoted and encouraged to continue, she adds.

According to her, expensive raw materials, labour charges, taxes and lack of demand are other reasons. And many fakes are being sold as blue pottery, tarnishing the reputation of the craft, she says. 

“To promote, the government should remove the GST. Earlier, during my father’s time, sales tax was implemented on blue pottery and because of him, the tax was waived off," shares Kumud. She feels there is an urgent need to document the history of blue pottery.

There are many challenges for the craft to survive. However, efforts to introduce crafts in schools have been going on. Even if few children get interested many crafts can survive and develop.

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