Mud pots painted white, red and green with a yellow manjal tied around their necks are a classic icon of the Pongal season in Tamil Nadu. The festival is incomplete without these colourful pots that are beautifully painted. However, while they are supposed to bring happiness to households, those who make the pots donâ€™t have much to celebrate ahead of Pongal.
Senbaganathan, a potter from a village in Kallakurichi, works along with his wife to make earthen pots ahead of Pongal. As is the case with traditional potters in Tamil Nadu, Senbaganathanâ€™s entire family is put to work in order to gain profits during this time. He says, â€śThe business of pottery can only be carried out as a family. We start at 6 am every morning and work hard till 6 pm to produce the best output. We also make other earthen products like vessels and stoves for sale.â€ť
Every day, Senbaganathan brings mud from the nearby pond and starts to grind it, to make the mud workable and bubble-free. Once the mud is wedged, Senbaganathan puts a ball of it on his manually-driven potterâ€™s wheel. He then spins it until he gets a pot of the desired shape and size.
However, the number of pots that he and his family make each day differs as per the availability and texture of mud, as well as the seasons. Once the pots are made, the female head of the family dries them and paints them to indicate festive cheer.
"At the end of a hard dayâ€™s labour, we usually get a few hundred rupees, but the coronavirus and the unseasonal rains have brought down the demand for pots. The government also gave us assistance of Rs 1,000 during the lockdown, but that was not enough to run the family for the past eight months. So to survive we had to incur debt,â€ť says Senbaganathan.
While during summer the potters make a pot a day, during the monsoon they are forced to spend 2-3 to dry the mud from the pond. â€śThe unseasonal rain the past week has affected us in making the pots. We are unable to dry them and transport them to our wholesale customers. So we have a long way to go to revive our business and come out of these debt-ridden days,â€ť he shares.
However, more than the pandemic, Senbaganathan worries that the past year saw a rise in plastic pot sales and a decline in that of earthen pots. He also worries that people view earthen pots as a luxury amid the pandemic, which deters people. â€śYou could find the plastic and other pots in the market even during the pandemic, but there is no place for earthen pots. However, the buyers should understand that earthen pots are healthy for everyone. Buyers should support us and the environment by using them more,â€ť Shenbaganathan urges.
In Chennai, the vendors who sell earthen pots also echo similar views. Pushparaj, a vendor says, â€śLast year IT and major companies were functioning, so all of them used to buy pots to celebrate Pongal; but now we do not have similar sales. Many people use thermocol pots to celebrate, which also has adverse efforts on the environment.â€ť
â€śThere was no business during the coronavirus pandemic and we restarted the sales only now. We are trying to sell our stock by painting the pots. We urge the public to come forward to help us,â€ť Pushparaj shares.
As the industry vies for a boost in sales ahead of Pongal, earthen pottersâ€™ associations staged protests in various parts of the state, demanding the government for assistance. Somanarayanan, President of Manpanai Thozhilar Nala Sangam (Earthen pots workersâ€™ association) says, â€śFor the past eight months, the potters were leading their lives under distress. They suffered losses in their livelihood and their chance for revival is only during the Pongal season.â€™
Somanarayanan adds, â€śSince the purchasing power of people has reduced due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, we request the government to give pots along with Pongal gift hampers in the Public Distribution Shops.â€ť The association also urged the public to buy pots to support the livelihood of the potters and to help revive their craft.