BINDAPUR POTTERS AS DOCUMENTED IN 1980
By Ron du
Bois, Professor Emeritus, Oklahoma State University, U.S.A.
Bindapur is a village of 700 potters located on the outskirts of
Delhi, India's capital city. Here are some of the nations one
million seven hundred thousand potters, called kumbars.
community has more than 200 houses of potters. It is devoid of
modern facilities such as electricity, municipal water supply, paved
roads or drainage system. The houses are one room shelters-which
must provide space for both hearth and processed raw materials. The
potters, like most Indian villagers, are usually illiterate. Their
material surroundings are poor.
Bindapur, because of its proximity to a metropolitan area, is far
larger than an average potters' village. Although the entire cycle
of production and sales is individualized, these villagers gain
distinct advantages in the purchase of raw material and marketing
through their centralized location.
completely dominates Bindapur's economy. Houses are built of
rejected water vessels, cracked during firing.
casualties of the huge production of water vessels, these cracked
jajars, become a valuable building material for the construction of
well insulated walls.
Bindapur women draw their water from a central fountain. Before 1980
this pottery community did not exist. 75% of the potters migrated
from Rajasthan, a neighboring “suate”, and 25% from village sections
of the same state, attracted by Delhi's large market potential. Thus
they have broken generations of residential stability. Some families
still own small holdings of land in their original. villages and
move back during the agricultural season when the pulse of pottery
process of migration has created a sharp break in the economic life
of the Bindapur potters. From the traditional system of barter used
in the villages, they have moved into the monetized economy and
competitive market of an urban environment.
JAJARS, PRESS MOLDS, AND AERIAL COILS
prior to firing.
are fitted together to form the body of a jarjar.
variety of forms are used for carrying and storing water. Jajars
are made from press molds. The molds are incised by the potters with
a striking variety of traditional designs.
variety of forms are used for carrying and storing water.
jajar is made from press molds. Molds are incised by the potters
with a striking variety of traditional designs. The production of
jajars starts in early morning when clay discs are made and
pressed into decorative press molds. These are used to form the top
section of the vessel. In three hours, between 6 and 9 a.m., two
potters...sometimes mother and daughter or husband and wife...work
independently preparing circular slabs of clay. These are picked up
and pounded into the top half of approximately 108 molds. They are
then set aside to stiffen and will be taken up later.
next two hours, the same number of discs are prepared and pressed
into the lower half of an equal number of undecorated press molds.
The process takes little more than one minute per mold
the first meal of the day is taken at 11 a.m. It consists of dhal
(or lentils) and about 3-6 chipattis cooked on country stoves
of clay...and fueled with prepared cakes of cow dung.
surfaces, essential to the western method of rolling coils--do not
exist in village India. Instead, the potter uses a system of aerial
Coordination of the back and forth movement of the hands combined
with an even opposing pressure of the bottom edges of the palms
produces long even coils.
third stage in making jajars consists of preparing long coils of
clay. These are used to join the two forms together. The technique
of producing "aerial coils" consists of moving the hands back and
forth in such a way that the bottom edge of the palms exert an even
opposing pressure on the clay.
is applied to thicken the edge while the mold is rotated by a sure
action of the potter's right foot and toe.
coil is applied to thicken the edge while the mold is rotated by a
sure action of the potter's right foot and toe. The two molds are
now fitted together. The potter rotates the vessel with the left
hand, while the right hand on the interior presses against the coil
of clay previously added, thus thoroughly joining the two halves. To
press a disc of clay into the bottom mold, trim the edges, join the
two halves together, and set the whole aside, takes one and 1/2
Later-the bottom mold is removed-allowing the clay to become
“leather hard”. Then the top mold is removed and the vessel turned
right side up. The neck less, leather-hard forms are carried to the
potter's wheel where they are rapidly centered. Before spinning the
wheel the potter forms rings from wads of clay.
the neck of the jarjar.
Positioned around the center opening, the potter spins the wheel
--then takes 25 seconds to throw the clay rings to a finished neck
takes one and 1/2 minutes to center the jajar on the wheel, place
the clay ring on the neck, spin the wheel, form the neck and remove
the vessel from the wheel. Before the day is done, the family will
set aside 108 finished jajars to further stiffen overnight... and to
dry completely the following day. The wall thickness of the jajars
is about 1/4 of an inch...its thinness contributing to rapid drying.
The metallic color on the top half of the vessel derives from
pulverized mica dusted on the top half of the press mold. Primarily
decorative, it also prevents the soft clay from sticking to the
molds also-are used to make “surahis”, a vessel for
serving water. These are often fired as blackware.
blackware, cotton waste brought in from outside the village is used
as a fuel. It is more expensive than other fuels like sawdust
costing eight rupees per firing... but the potters believe it
produces better carbonization and richer blacks.
potters bring baskets of cotton waste and spread it on the bottom of
the “madani”...the open field firing system which has been
used in India for thousands of years.
unsuccessful or “waster” “surahis” from a previous firing are
placed in the center of the “maidani”. This is the first tier
of what will become an open shaft, through which-burning dung will
be dropped to ignite the ground layer of cotton waste.
100 to 125 vessels are next placed upright to form a concentric
pattern. Another one hundred vessels turned upside down are
supported by the vertical necks of the first tier.
waste product of India's ubiquitous cattle serve as fuel for village
India. Called “gobar”, it is mixed with straw. Women pat it
into flat cakes, then slap them against a wall to dry in the sun.
When dry and ready to be used as fuel, the prepared cow dung is
of “upala” are placed on the feet of the inverted ceramic
vessels. Then two tiers are laid sideways in a concentric pattern
around the central shaft and topped with “upala”. This is
repeated twice more until a total of eight tiers and four layers of
cow dung cakes are stacked.
is placed in a leaning position around the entire circumference of
the “maidani”. About 175 pounds of “upala” are used
for the firing, at a cost in 1980 of 12 rupees, i.e., one and one
half U.S. dollars.
is now covered with pot shards which help to contain the heat during
the firing. Next, rice straw is spread over the maidani, then
covered with clay slurry and a layer of dry ash. The clay and ash
form a crust to seal in most of the heat during the firing. A space
around the bottom left free of clay and ash allows entry of air for
combustion. The combustion spreads slowly until the cakes of dung
around the perimeter are ignited.
a.m. the following morning, as parts of the clay and ash crust begin
to fall away, the potters know the firing is completed in this
section. To close the breaks cotton flax is thrown in, then ash from
previous firings is shoveled over the flax to seal the carbon. The
process is continued for about two hours, with the whole family
pitching in. All breaks are repaired as they occur until most of the
surface are covered with a final layer of moist ash. Air is sealed
out, little or no fuel remains inside. Before noon, sawdust and
cotton waste are thrown into each shaft the smoke producing a black
surface coloration. The shafts are sealed with ash and the process
of carbonization is completed.
takes two days for the pots to cool sufficiently so that the
maidani can be opened and the vessels removed.
surahi are considered a luxury item. Thus they can be sold at
higher prices than pots fired in regular firing. Surahi are
placed in the living area and used to pour water for guests. When
water is poured rather than dipped from large jars, it is considered
more prestigious and polite.
potters are Hindus and part of a caste which includes masons, farm
hands, and cigarette sellers. It is part of their duty as Hindus to
follow the values of their caste. Thus Hinduism has favored the
hereditary maintenance of vocation. Indian potters, however, have
been hard hit by the decline of traditional forms of patronage, of
hereditary services to court and temple. Changes in land tenure have
also resulted in the decline of traditional payments in the form of
shares from the harvest.
is a constant complaint among the Bindapur villagers. They are at
work before 7 a.m. and often work into the night. The potters have
no regular work week. They work every day except holidays. They
celebrate “holy”, a joyous festival held to recreate
Krishna’s love play with a group of milkmaids. It is the only day of
the year when disrespect can be shown to an employer, teacher, wife
or husband. After a period of fun when the social bonds are
loosened, people get dressed up and go worship at the temple.
Ceremonies associated with birth, death, marriage and puberty draw
the potters away from work. At other times work is stopped because
astrological signs are inauspicious, for example when there is an
eclipse of the sun. Such respites soon end, however, and these
villagers rarely escape the piles of drying clay which dot the
the potters paid a minimum of 120 rupees, or $ 15 U.S. dollars, for
a truck load of chikni mitti, a grey-tan clay with good
plasticity. The clay is dug, delivered and unloaded by truck
wallahs, contractors and specialists in the work.
method of clay preparation produces a smooth levigated clay. The
pulverized clay is transformed into slurry and screened into a
trough to settle. The top layer of water is removed and the middle
layer of slurry is poured onto clean ground to sun dry to the
second method is less time consuming but requires a better quality
of clay. When the delivered clay is thoroughly dried, it is spread
on clean ground. The women in each family are responsible for
pulverizing the clay chunks with a mallet or stick. This
accomplished, water is poured over the course clay particles and
immediately wedged in to balls about 30 pounds in weight. Indian
potters are not concerned with the trapping of air during the
wedging process. All pots with few exceptions will be beaten, a
process that thoroughly compresses and expels all trapped air.
wedged balls are then thrown together to form solid mounds of clay,
about three feet in height. Within 24 hours the moisture will
penetrate and soften the course particles of clay.
further mix and compensate for lack of screening, the clay is sliced
with a wire, then wedged again. Inspection of all parts of the clay
mass is made possible by a process in which the heel of the hand
quickly "sheers" layers of clay. The potter spots all impurities
visually and picks them out. The clay is then rewedged without
concern for trapped air.
LARGE WATER VESSELS OR “GOALS”
potters make large water vessels or “goals”, using a
combination of throwing and beating techniques. This combination is
one of the most interesting and typical features of Indian pottery
potters use the socketed block wheel. The wheel is twirled counter
clockwise with a bamboo turning stick. The throwing head is made of
either stone, or more recently, cement. Each house has two or three
wheels, each costing in 1980 between 150 and 200 rupees, or $18 to
$25 U.S. dollars. Throwing and beating are among the most laborious
parts of the potters work. In Bindapur it is exclusively men's work.
The momentum of the wheel depends on the weight of the throwing head
and the strength and skill of the individual potter.
jars are made by throwing an initial cone of clay.
Initially thrown as a truncated cylinder with a mouth about 4 inches
in diameter, the potter leaves a thick layer of clay at the bottom.
Potters throw about 50 cylinders in one afternoon.
overnight to stiffen, they are ready for beating the next morning.
The beating is done in four or five stages.
STAGES OF BEATING
stage one-the soft leather hard thrown forms are moved to a fired
clay base form, called an athura. The thick bottom is rolled
on the athura.
potter begins the beating using the flat surface of the paddle.
Inside the vessel, the potter holds an anvil or "pindy". The
potter concentrates on thinning out the thick lower wall of the
thrown form. The sequence of "beats" proceeds from base to shoulder,
both pindy and paddle exerting an equal opposing force.
anvil and “pindy” to form the vessel.
is made of thick wood, flat on one side, concave on other side
matching the curvature of the anvil.
stage two, the potter beats rapidly for one minute to expand and
thin the wall of the upper belly and shoulder. In the third stage,
the potter reverses the paddle so that the concave surface faces the
vessel. The curve of both anvil and paddle now closely match the
round surface of the vessel. The potter takes about five minutes to
further expand and thin the wall. The vessel is then lifted, the
soft clay often buckling, and carried to the yard where it is placed
ln a supporting form made from a previously fired vessel to further
stiffen. Within a total of ten minutes the potter has completed
three of the four stages of beating.
the fourth stage the potter holds his anvil or "pindy" by its knob
and inserts it inside the vessel. Imperfections, often caused by air
trapped in the 'clay, may cause fissures in the form's surface.
These can be repaired by the skillful potter by judicious beating.
potter must judge the proper moisture content of the clay in order
to successfully complete the final beating. Judged sufficiently
stiff, the vessel is removed from its supporting form and returned
to the “athura". Again the action of the anvil on the inside
and the paddle on the outside bring the vessel to its final shape.
This final beating requires about 2 and 1/2 minutes and is essential
to achieve a well shaped globular form.
and final treatment is used by many potters. After the final beating
the mouth of the pot is sealed by a fired clay lid. The pot is then
lifted and firmly jerked, causing the air pressure to expand and
further perfect the shape. This technique is peculiar to potters of
the North-western region of India.
sequence of beating is very rapid...about four opposing strikes per
second...so that the largest thrown form can be expanded
dramatically in one minute.
process of beating transforms the initially wheel formed cylinders
to three times their original size, results in globular forms of
great beauty. It is the result of a well-defined process which is
more or less followed by all the potters of India.
GEOMETRIC SIGNS, RITUAL DESIGNS, FIELDS OF ENERGY
beaten forms are next allowed to dry. For decoration potters use a
slip made of a boiled solution of five parts red ochre, one part
acacia leaves, and one part caustic soda. This slip contributes to a
partial sealing of the surface, but its main purpose is visual and
psychological. Without it, the fired surface would be rough and
plaid in color.
Embellishment of the vessel
embellished “goals” or water vessels.
application of slip strengthens visual impact and provides a magic
ground for the application of "geometricity signs." With a brush
made of donkey or horse hair, every woman is able to create
they are not permitted to use the potter's wheel women must use
other means for banding. Sometimes the base of the vessel is simply
placed on an inverted bowl. The potter then presses down on the clay
lid to spin the vessel with a single twist of the left hand.
surface of the pot is first brushed with multiple continuous
horizontal lines separating it into bands or panels. White slip is
prepared from calcium carbonate, while black colorant is prepared
from sintered manganese dioxide boiled with gum.
Geometricity possesses vital force. Single and double wavy lines,
loop patterns, pairs of strokes, double spirals as well as bird and
fish symbols follow the initial straight line banding.
Although many of the methods embellishment and brush work vary from
potter to potter, each moves her arm freely in to execute larger
designs and uses her side as a support for short mincing strokes.
diagrams welcome the dawn, invoke a god, or dispel untoward
forces...they are at once decoration and ritual, bringing beauty of
form in endless variety. Traditional Hindus feel decorated surfaces
exert a ''field of energy...thus keeping untoward forces at bay.
average consumer is unable to pay for the labor necessary to burnish
and carefully decorate. Under present conditions the work must be
done quickly and sold at a competitive price. An exception to this
is the “chattee” or milk vessel. These are really commercial
vessels sold to shopkeepers rather than private persons. Because
they are on display, they command a higher price --and the women can
afford to carefully burnish and decorate.
is no opportunity for outstanding embellishment, however. To create
superior products for which the potter has no market would spell
ruination. Yet a skilled potter does not make haste in brush
decoration. Each line is drawn slowly, carefully, and painstakingly
and with a precision born of long practice.
goals (gols), picked up and carried to the kiln (bhati )
are passed to the potter who stacks them in the kiln floor in a
KILN (BHATI ) CONSTRUCTION AND FIRING
kiln prior to loading.
kiln or bhati , built close to the dwelling of each pottery
family, is a cylindrical 'structure about 6-7 feet in height.
potters are paid by the kiln load all Bindapur kilns are built to
the same dimensions. The potters build their own kilns using 600-700
bricks, broken shards, and clay. The cost of construction materials
for the kiln in 1980 was between 600-800 rupees or $75 to $100 U.S.
not including labor.
wall thickness of the “goals” is not more than 1/4 inch, yet
support the weight of a hefty potter who must stand on them to fill
the kiln. The traditional method of closing the kiln is to carefully
overlap sections of broken shard. Nowadays scraps of sheet metal are
used as covering material.
present the potter's high initial investment in the kiln as well as
general poverty prevents experimentation with either new kiln design
or improved designs of existing kilns.
are designed to use sawdust as fuel. Ten bags of sawdust, bought in
by camel pulled carts, are needed to fire a kiln. Normally the cost
is 10 rupees a bag, but during the peak season sawdust becomes
scarce and the price rises to l2 rupees. At present the potters have
no methods to buy or store sawdust when the supply is good and when
the prices are lowest.
firing commences, the potter creates a low temperature inside the
kiln with sawdust sprinkled on burning cow dung. This completely
dries the greenware vessels. During the peak season of summer the
firing continues into the night.
potters must throw handfuls of sawdust continuously for a period of
four or five hours. As the temperature rises the heat and dust make
the job unbearable. To continue firing, family members relieve each
other at ten minute intervals.
the open field system of firing which proceeds on its own,
the bhati must be tended every moment.
present the potters are limited to the lowest firing temperatures.
Combustion of hand thrown sawdust is inefficient compared to western
methods of power injection of sawdust. Temperatures can never exceed
1200 to 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, i.e., bonfire temperatures.
in the evening a kiln can be unloaded the next morning. The quick
cooling cycle of the “bhati” is an advantage relative to the
two days firing necessary for large open field firing.
pots, tossed out of the “bhati” with seeming carelessness,
are caught with assurance and stacked on the ground in preparation
for loading. The payment in 1980 for the fired contents of one kiln
is 300 rupees, or $37 U.S. dollars. Of this 143 rupees, almost $18
U.S. dollars must be deducted for the cost of clay, sawdust,
colorants, and loss through breakage, leaving a final profit of 157
rupees --less than 20 U.S. dollars in 1980.
the kilns are fired on the average of every eight days the average
daily return per family is about is about eighteen rupees, i.e.,
2.35 U.S. dollars, Given the average family size, this would
produce an average daily wage of less than five rupees or under 60
U.S. cents. The pots are sold to private merchants who send lorries
or carts to the colony.
Difficult as it is, their
work is considered sacred, with certain tasks ordained by Hindu law.
Only men are allowed to throw at the stick-turned stone wheels; only
women decorate the ware with prescribed religious symbols. The
potter's art is not conceived of as an accumulated skill but rather
a direct intervention by the divine being.
A 30 minute educational documentary in DVD
format, "Bindapur: A Colony of 700 Potters" is available for
For more information: (1) go directly to to the
website: http//www.angelfire.com/ok2/dubois (2) Google
Potters of the World Video/DVD Series (3) contact Ron du
Bois, 612 S. Kings St., Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA, 74074, (405)
377- 2524, email: firstname.lastname@example.org