Hues of Khurja: Heritage, process and changing trends of pottery in the ceramic city


Approximately two hours from Delhi is the ceramic city of Khurja – famous for its colourful pottery, glass, and ceramic works. A quick getaway from Delhi, Khurja provides sight to the sore eyes, a blissful respite as it welcomes you to her colourful by-lanes and alleys. Nestled among lush green mango orchards, dotted with sugarcane fields, the city is a paradise for pottery lovers and art connoisseurs. With fresh sugarcane juice, Bael (wood apple) sherbet, and Masala Shikanji (lemonade) that vendors and farmers sell in summer, one experiences a sort of pristine rurality away from the usual chaos of urban spaces – a sort of mental cleanse needed from time to time.

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And, Khurja welcomes one in all her glory. Colourful, warm, autumnal colours, clay pots dotting the roads, with scents of freshly baked and glazed earthenware -one can’t help but marvel at the timeless art of ‘pottery’ existing since ancient civilizations. India has a rich tradition in living crafts and boasts of a range of pottery art forms– Longpi pottery from Manipur, black pottery from the central Indian plains, blue pottery from Rajasthan, Khavda from Gujarat, terracotta from West Bengal, and Khurja from Uttar Pradesh.

An artist paints Mughal art on a bowl (Source: Swasti Pachauri)

The city houses many factories and contributes to craft-based livelihoods and employment. The ceramic pottery works of Khurja in the Bulandshahr district are also recognized under the Government of India’s ‘One District, One Product scheme in Uttar Pradesh. The town also vigorously contributes to the Government of India’s objectives of ‘Vocal for Local’ and ‘Make in India’, promotes small-scale industries, and supports countless artisans and craftsmen. People from nearby villages of Nehrupur in Bulandshahr also find employment here. According to CSIR- Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, Khurja has more than 494 units catering to small-scale industries. The craft form also enjoys the Geographical Indication (GI).

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Heritage and History

According to locals and secondary literature, the art of Khurja pottery dates back around 400 years. There are many anecdotal and historical tales. For instance, some believe that potters from Multan came to Khurja, settled here, and started practising pottery – which lends the town its uniqueness in creating an occupational legacy. In the 1940s, the ceramic and pottery works got governmental impetus, and since the 1950s, efforts in promoting craft-based livelihoods have received further institutional support.

Kulhar-inspired cups and mugs. (Source: Swasti Pachauri)

Process

Khurja pottery uses a particular type of ‘safedmitti,’ as some locals call it. Colloquially known as the golden clay,’ the ingredients of this unique clay mix are procured from the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and other parts of India. The process is detailed and meticulous. A unique blend is made in ‘ball-wheels’ with 60-65 per cent clay, other clay, and minerals, such as Quartz, China clay, Rajmahal clay, and 30-40 per cent crushed stones – that give the resultant texture more durability and strength. Measured in ‘gatti,’ which weighs 25 kg each – around 300-350 gattis are procured. Around Rs 30,000-35,000 are incurred on transportation alone from
Bikaner in Rajasthan and other towns to Khurja. Once this mix is made, it is filtered, and a paste or dough is obtained. This paste is then put in electric moulds to get desired shapes – a process called ‘dhaalna‘ or moulding the paste into the desired shapes. Artisans also handcraft select products; however, most of the bulk production for whole-sale is done with the help of electric moulding machines.

Next, the products are left to dry, and the process of ‘smoothening’ or ‘puchai‘ follows. This is nothing but treating these crafts with first sandpapers and then water. Wet sponges are used to smoothen and polish these products with water, and women primarily engage in this activity. For example, Sharda, 50, hails from Badaun and has worked in the Khurja ceramics and pottery industry for nearly 15 years. Like other women, she is involved in ‘kapdekipuchai – smoothening and finishing artefacts – mugs, cups, and other processes like gift wrapping. She clocks around twelve hours at a factory every day and earns Rs 5000-6000 monthly.

Bells and Chimes (Source: Swasti Pachauri)

Once products dry, artisans and handicraftsmen make the preliminary floral borders and designs using butter paper, sponge, and general paints. Next follows the ever-patient and perseverant skill of painting, followed by glazing and, finally, baking. Artists engaged in colouring and painting have been here practising this for decades and are exceptionally fast and precise with their delicate handiwork or ‘kala’ as they call it.

Evolving Trends

Artisans specialise in crafting various products, tiles, ceramic and sanitary ware. Glazed vases, pots, and ‘Handi’ sets – are either handcrafted or moulded in electric machines. For instance, tall vases are purely handmade and take 6-8 days to finish. Then there are elegant yet very economical planters, delicate wind chimes, soap dispensers, napkin holders, mugs, cutlery, crockery sets, and tableware. Several factory-run outlets and shops have diversified and adapted to the changing urban tastes. For instance, matte-finished crockery and cutlery sets in monochromes, fondue sets, tea light holders, diffusers, ’emoticon’ cups and mugs, idols of gods and goddesses, hanging planters, magnets, and door knobs – all find their refuge in this ever-evolving landscape of handicrafts and arts, housed here, suited to an even more evolving consumer palette.

Freshly made shapes (Source: Swasti Pachauri)

The colours and designs have evolved. According to the locals, initially, artisans would use warm hues of earthy greens, reds, and other autumnal colours in broad floral patterns. Universally, though, black paint is used to paint floral designs and boundaries. Works typically have delicate floral borders and motifs, commonly seen in the ‘three-tulip floral pattern’ and the popular Mughlai art -flowing continuously in ochre reds, beige-whites, sea-greens, and yellows. ‘Mughlai’ designed kitchenware and planters are very expensive, as these involve end-to-end delicate handwork.

Product diversification is vital, and in bigger factories, a dedicated team of researchers study changing demands in India and outside. For example, microwaveable kitchenware from Khurja is now being exported to other countries, and a wide range of products directly from the factories are available on marketplaces like Amazon.

Mughal art vases (Source: Swasti Pachauri)

With modern advancements in techniques like the introduction of the electric wheel and the electric kiln, penetration of television and cable TV in the 1990s, and now social media, Khurja is a thriving testimony to how pottery as an art has evolved and has contributed to important commerce, over the years. For instance, Rajeev Goyal, 37, owner of the ‘Somny’ factory in Khurja, employs around 150 workers. Like most other factory owners and entrepreneurs here, he quit his earlier business and forayed into the ceramics industry, realising the profitability and popularity of pottery crafts in the early-1990s. Similarly, ShyamLal, 55, and his family previously grew wheat and maize on their farms. They started selling pottery items in the mid-1990s mainly for income diversification. Most families here in Khurja forayed into the art and production of pottery in the mid-1990s realising the popularity and profitability of the craft form.

Way Forward

With each factory having over 500 products, Khurja is easily the most accessible and affordable pottery market close to Delhi, where consumers and buyers can directly procure products from artisans themselves, thus promoting local employment, contributing to livelihoods, and preserving traditional arts and crafts of the country, and nurturing the country’s cultural capital. Khurja pottery works also make for more economical options than the more expensive ‘blue pottery’ art from Rajasthan.

During field interactions, many potters and artisans demanded more subsidies on oil and gas, as baking mainly depends on gas and diesel. DuringCOVID-19-induced lockdowns and the resultant out-migration, Khurja, too, like other towns producing handicrafts, faced a crisis. Like other handicraft industries, inventories in Khurja piled up. However, once the lockdown started to ease, most products were sold around Diwali – as, in general, the demand for Khurja products was very high around the time.

Planters (Source: Swasti Pachauri)

A lot can be done further to develop the town of Khurja into a vibrant tourist centre. Owing to its artistic character and the riot of colours the city offers, a sustainable tourism hub could be promoted. Cottages, hotels, and restaurants promoting heritage cuisines, pottery workshops, pottery safaris, training and capacity-building programmes for artisans and painters, and an exhibition on the history of Khurja can all be brought together under one roof to generate livelihoods and revenues further.

Public-Private Community Partnership models could be used with corporate houses, district administration, and the civil society engaging with local communities in their sustainability initiatives.

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