Once a thriving potter’s colony, Koojalli was named after the favored occupation of its inhabitants.

The last Koojalli potters Two families keep alive an old craft in this Ktaka villagePhotograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty
news Art Monday, July 30, 2018 - 18:42

Suresh Gunugar is oblivious to the arrival of a guest in his home. The 72-year-old potter is carefully putting the finishing touches to the Ganapati statue he has been crafting for the local temple in Koojalli, a remote village in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka.

After completing a delicate balancing act with the clay, Suresh turns his attention to the pots lying next to him, “You have to be careful with the clay, you see. Otherwise it will fall apart in a hurry,” he says with a sprightly enthusiasm in his voice that masks his actual age.

Suresh is one of the last remaining potters of Koojalli. “It is our family and the neighbours who are still involved in the profession. And even then, we don’t often get orders to make pots. We have adapted ourselves into making idols and other things,” he says.

There is a hint of lament in Suresh’s voice because he remembers a time when over ten households in Koojalli were involved in the intricate profession. “Around twenty years ago, there were at least ten or maybe more households making pots but one by one, the people in these houses took up other jobs like coolie work, painting and driving. Today, you have to go as far as Siddapura to find groups of potters,” he says.

Once a thriving potter’s colony, Koojalli was named after the favored occupation of its inhabitants. ‘Koje’ in Kannada translates to ‘mud’ (particularly the one used to make tiles and pots) and ‘halli’ translates to ‘village’. Today, the same village which once flourished with potters, has only two families who still engage in the practice of making pots.

Pots left to dry in the front yard of Suresh Gunugar's residence in Koojalli || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

Suresh believes that the decline is a reflection of the changes seen in modern households. “Years ago, pots were a utility in every household. We made cups, plates, utensils and the traditional pots used to carry water,” he says, reflecting on the times a truck was required to transport the pots made in his house.

He however admits that the pots he makes will not be able to withstand the heat of the stoves used in today's kitchens. “The mud pot is not able to withstand the heat of the stoves in use today,” he says before adding,”The only ones still using pots are the elders who still cook food using firewood collected from the forest.”

In the neighbouring house, Lakshmi and her husband Santayya Rama are sitting in the jagali of their house. The couple, along with Suresh’s family, are one of the two remaining potter families in Koojalli. Lakshmi says that the monsoon months from June to December are relaxed times for them, ”It is difficult to work with wet clay so we do not take up as many orders as we do in the dry months from January to May. There are still orders for making pots but not enough people to do it,” she laments, echoing the words of her neighbour.

Lakshmi, one of the last remaining potters in Koojalli || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

Both of Lakshmi’s sons decided against taking up pottery. “I don’t blame them. Pottery is hard work and you need discipline to do it,” she says. Lakshmi’s elder son, 27-year-old Rajendra is a tailor and 23-year-old Rajat hand carves wooden doors. Both work out of their home and are skilled craftsmen but admit that they did not fancy taking up pottery like their parents.

Lakshmi’s husband Santayya Rama however is unconcerned by the decision of his two children. “The children should do what they feel like doing. We cannot compare two different arts and say that they ought to have continued the family tradition,” he says.

Santayya even admits that at this rate, Koojalli will soon run out of potters. “The situation is similar in so many villages around here, Honalli, Halkar, Kekkar and so on. In all these villages there is one family that is left practicing the art. In other villages like Haldipura and Sankolli, there is no one left,” he says. “In a few years, I think we will be showing photographs to people in Koojalli to say that pottery was practiced here,” says Lakshmi.

The pots made in Koojalli once were taken as far as Mangalore, but with the emergence of stainless steel, their utility gradually declined, with those involved in the occupation of making them, seeking newer ways to compensate for the loss.

Suresh Gunugar at his residence in Koojalli || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

However, Suresh remains unmoved when asked whether he would ever consider leaving his profession. “My sons Madhu and Mahesh are going to continue making pots and as long as the orders keep coming, I will keep doing this,” he says with assurance. But unlike Suresh, who revels in making the traditional madike (pots), his sons Madhu and Mahesh have transitioned into making vigrahas (idols), a sign of their flexibility. “Today, we only get orders to make an idol or a decorative showpiece. We have even made a 17 feet Hanuman statue for the local temple,” he says proudly.

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