While staying at the Golden Waters Resort in Kumarakom, India I came across a man throwing pottery on the most traditional potter’s wheel I had ever seen. He used one was made of wood and it appeared well used. It was balanced with crossbeams in the middle and looked just like a wheel. In the photo you can see the potter use a stick to push and pull the wheel into a frenzy of rotation.
Before the potter’s wheel, most ceramics were made using the coil method. You probably remember it from art class where you made the “snake” with the clay and then circled it around to make a pencil cup. Once coiled, the edges could be worked together into a smooth surface. Coiling usually took place on a leaf or piece of fabric to allow the item to be turned for ease of the potter. That way he didn’t have to get up and move around the object, it moved for him. The potter’s wheel is probably another step along the evolutionary chain of that leaf and it really started to allow the potter to spin things! The first potter’s wheel is believed to be from Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.
From the ability to spin came a whole new method of ceramics known as “throwing.” When a potter “throws his clay” he is placing a lump of clay in the center of the wheel, spinning it and then shaping the spinning lump upwards and outwards depending on his goal.This technique allows for thinner walled ceramics than the coil method and also decreased a potters production time so more could be made each hour.
A potter may choose to use only his fingers while shaping his creation. Some choose to also use various tools made out of wood or plastic to make indentations and patterns for decoration. Here the potter uses a tool to create a lip on the pot.
Before he is done with this creation, he needs to finish the lip, or top edge off, so that it is smooth and safe to use for drinking. Like many ceramics in India, his pieces are unglazed. They dry in the sun and are not fired in a kiln as a lot of pottery is. Here the potter uses a tool to start to create a lip on the pot.
After the potter is satisfied with his creation, he cuts it off the wheel using a wire or strong string. He starts by putting the wire around the far side of the cup and pulling the wire towards him along the surface of the wood. This releases the cup from the potter’s wheel in a neat, clean way. When working on a potters wheel, it is hard to fix mistakes. Once a vessel becomes misshapen, it frequently is a lost cause and the potter would need to work the clay back into a lump and start again. Here we have a very experience potter. His hands were sure and confident the whole time.
After completion, the potter may choose to add decoration. He can do that by scratching, or incising, marks into the sides. He may also press items that create a shape or pattern he likes around the border. At the time of this photo, he was just pleased to show his work off to me and my friends.
This man was an artisan who had a work area set up on the grounds of the Golden Waters to teach guests about pottery traditions in the area. What was fun was that you could sit down and make your piece if you wanted to. Unfortunately, I had to be somewhere so I only had a chance to watch. I was able to purchase something from him before I left though. Always the WanderShopper! While setting up a shot of the cups to post here, I gave them a good look and am sure that he painted them after they dried. They are a terra cotta color but the clay underneath is more of a grey-brown.
Here are the cups I purchase from him. With some careful packing, they came home fine for only 100 rupees or around $2. The cups are resting on a beautiful sari I picked up at FabIndia on that trip in Kochi. FabIndia is always my priority clothing stop when I arrive anywhere in India. I think I’m up to around 10 different locations!
While you travel, make sure you keep your eyes open for demonstrations of traditional arts. You can learn a lot about how things are made and about an authentic part of local culture. Quite frequently, the items being made are also for sale. They make a better than average souvenir because you were able to meet and observe an artisan. On a shelf in a souvenir shop, I might not have selected these cups. But they keep a treasured place on my bookcase as they hold a greater story within them.
As I mentioned, I had this encounter with the potter at the Golden Waters Resort in Kumarakom. It’s a beautiful bungalow style hotel in the Kerala backwaters spread out over thirteen islands. There are sweet little bridges that connect the paths over the islands to the front desk, restaurant, spa or pool. Here is a photo I snapped from the front porch of my bungalow. They have a nice restaurant, spa and pool on site, They also had a really assertive tom turkey who seemed to like to hang out with the female guests. I have visited hotels with dogs and cats on staff, but this was the first turkey! To learn more about the Golden Waters Resort, you can visit theri website.
What artisans have you enjoyed watching while on a trip? What about encounters with unusual hotel pets?