Aided by deft hands, the pot materialises on the wheel
A look at the potter's craft, a dwindling art clinging to its last bastions around the Kelani River.
Words: Yomal Senerath-Yapa | Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham
Pottery has always been a valued specialty of artisan communities living along the great Kelani river.The pottery shops near the Kelaniya temple are piled with clayware of all sorts: pots, ornaments, vases, flower pots, tills, water filters; a cornucopia of things.
We wanted to witness the birth of these brick-red, elegant beauties, and in our search we found a village of skilled potters. Dileepa Sandaruwan of Biyagama was bent over his timber wheel when we surprised him in his backyard. Of a quiet nature, he warmed to his subject slowly. He was a traditional craftsman, having inherited from his father.
The element of the trade, clay, is procured locally. Four types of clay - black, blue, white and red - must be mixed in a machine with water. Hauling this mixed clay home, Dileepa ‘foot wedges' it. His feet press and knead, and press and knead the clay till he is sure it is in good form.
The next step is to break the clay into balls of even size, and the sculpting begins. The moving wheel on which life is given to pottery is called ‘sakaporuwa'. Sitting by the machine, Dileepa foists each unruly sludge of clay on the rotating wheel. His deft fingers, sensitive with long years of practice, would shape the contours of a pot or a water filter. It is magical and beautiful to watch, and beats watching a chocolate fountain take shape by itself while spinning.
The work of each craftsman is imbued with his individuality and idiosyncrasies, which can be read on the clay.
The still moist pottery is then allowed to dry. In good time they would be weaned of the sun to be painted and decorated. ‘Guru', which is a pretty red is the pigment most favoured. Dileepa is adept at painting and engraving, which he does with swift, incisive strokes.
To bake is to breathe life to the pottery. In the wood kiln, the pots to be baked are snugly piled on top of clay tiles. The number of layers of pottery should not exceed five. Broken old bits of pottery are then used to cover up the layers. Over these, hay is liberally piled and the whole thing well-walled with earth, leaving not the tiniest gap, as retaining the heat is ‘Necessity Number One'.
Baking occupies three days as the heat has to be intensified slowly, gradually, as the fragile pottery will crack up at too ambitious a flare. At the end a peep-hole is pierced through the mound of earth. A dark red glow on the pottery is the sign that the baking is complete. The baked pots, once dried, acquire a very pretty biscuit (or peanut) matt.
Clay pots today also serve as decor. In homes or hotels, in gardens or living rooms, we see what was once strictly utilitarian transformed into ornaments of chaste elegance, giving a smart antique or rustic effect.
Dileepa, seasoned craftsman that he is with a trained eye, states that the signature of the artisan clings to his product. The work of each craftsman is imbued with his individuality and idiosyncrasies, which can be read on the clay.
Demand for clayware has never really plummeted through the years. However, housewives still cherish the goodness of the clay water filter that preserves a cool freshness and is traditionally believed to have curative powers. The clay pots too impart a unique taste to the food cooked in them; a taste, not obtainable by any other method, that Sri Lankans have inherited and grown to love through generations.
Pottery is deeply embedded in our culture and continues to be popular even today. The central act of celebrating New Year in Sinhalese as well as Tamil homes is to boil milk in a new clay pot. Bringing a freshly baked red clay pot home is the first, exciting move made for the new year. When milk boils over at the auspicious hour, prosperity is said to smile upon the household.
Clay pots today also serve as decor. In homes or hotels, in gardens or living rooms, we see what was once strictly utilitarian transformed into ornaments of chaste elegance, giving a smart antique or rustic effect. Pottery is a beautiful skill that needs to be protected.