Take to pottery during the pandemic

Ceramics classes allow Bhaktapur potters to keep family heritage alive, while giving people a chance to destress

As Nepal’s lockdown goes into its sixth month, people are taking up new indoor hobbies and finding ways to do more creative and calming activities. One of them is taking up ceramics.

And where else to discover one’s talent for the craft than in Bhaktapur, the centre of traditional pottery in Kathmandu Valley. The craft demands patience and concentration as a lump of clay is moulded on the potter’s wheel, fired and then turned into a work of art.

Archana Panthi, 25, a theatre artist from Kathmandu used to buy ceramic gifts for friends, but decided to use the lockdown to learn pottery herself.  She enrolled in Cera Nepal when the lockdown was eased, and the experience was so positive that she is determined to go back when travel restrictions are lifted.

“The owner gave us instructions, and we moulded the clay with our palms and fingers, and once they were ready we could even take it back with us, it was a whole new experience,” Panthi says.

Cera Nepal is a company specialising in fine ceramics, and builds on Bhaktapur’s pottery tradition, but instead of just making flower pots or water containers, it tries to be more creative with different items and innovative designs.

For Ratna Prasad Prajapati, 47, setting up Cera Nepal Udyog in 1984 was just an extension of his ancestral occupation of potters. He admits that when he was younger he was not so interested in the profession of his forebears, and dabbled in importing and selling TV sets.

But he switched, and found that innovating and improving on traditional pottery items was actually quite a lucrative business. He started producing crockery sets for hotels, decorative pieces, earthenware, and lately even new designs for terracotta tiles for flooring and roofs.

“What we make is still what our ancestors made, we have just tinkered with the techniques by glazing so that the items have a shine, have different colours and designs and also make the items more aesthetic,” Prajapati explains.

Unlike other businessmen, Prajapati does not want to keep the skill and craft to himself, but share it as widely as possible, which is why he has started taking on students into his ceramics school. It is a way to not just keep his family occupation alive, but also spread the traditions among other Nepalis who can experiment with new techniques.

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“It takes days to see a blob of clay transform itself into a perfectly blended crockery set. That is what is most satisfying, and it is also very soothing work and calms the mind,” adds Prajapati, whose daughter Alina is now managing the company.

Due to the pandemic, however, business is down. It was Alina’s idea to offer pottery lessons when the restrictions were lifted in July. The classes were held only on weekends, there was a limited number of apprentices and proper precautions were taken to space them out.

Alina Prajapati has been watching her father working on the potter’s wheel from a young age. Like her father, she tried other jobs, but has returned to the family’s pottery business with new ideas and innovation.

“I barely see people of my generation going back to their traditional family occupations, but after I saw the potential of cermaics I thought it was high time I helped my father with his business,” says 25-year-old Alina, who hopes that the classes will take off once the lockdown is lifted.

Subekchya KC, 35 was on her maternity break before lockdown and joined the pottery lessons at Cera Nepal, bringing along her older four-year-old son. She says, “It was a break for me. I forgot all my stress while making a bowl or ceramic plate. And my son found it lots of fun too. I completely forgot about postpartum angst, it was a real stress buster for me.”

Pottery making has often been described as being therapeutic. The mind is focused on what one wants to create, and it needs concentration and delicate work. Alina Prajapati says there have been many troubled adolescents who have found it to be useful to relax mind and body.

Sushil Shrestha, 34, used to work in an event management company and had a stressful job. It took just one session at Cera Nepal to change his entire outlook on life, friends, work and family.

He says, “A day spent in front of the potter’s wheel has taught me to be more patient and concentrated on creating something. It is good therapy to be focused on what you want to do”.

For Rajiv Sharma, 37, it was boredom during the lockdown that made him enroll at Cera Nepal. He took his young son along, who was also tired of being at home.

“Making something out of nothing was a great experience, it also allowed me to bond better with my son and we enjoyed shaping the clay together,” Sharma says.

Both Ratna and Alina Prajapati hope to restart the ceramics classes as soon as the lockdown is lifted. They see it as their responsibility to society to keep their family heritage alive, while giving people a chance to destress during the Covid-19 crisis.

Read also: In with the old, in with the new, Sewa Bhattarai

Monika Deupala