Wednesday, December 23, 2015

With the potters of IththaDemaliya. "Yannava tikak ballanava."

We took a bus to Tangalle and another bus about 16km to Weeraketiya. I planned out a walk that would roughly follow the circumference of a largish tank called Udakiriwila Wewa. The walk started just at the Weeraketiya bus stand where we followed the main road (also the bund road) northward to IththaDemaliya Road. The road would circle back into B450, another way into Weeraketiya, and I figured we could find our way to small tanks along the walking route. 

We were surprised, which I guess we shouldn't have been, when we first entered IththaDemaliya Road, where a few shops, some tuktuks, bicycles, scooters, and a fiber brush-coir rope truck were assembled. Dogs too. And kids. Less than ten miles in from Tangalle, which is crowded with tourists, we light-skinned foreigners on foot were a total spectacle. "Where are you going?!" The ubiquitous exclamation-question came fast and frequent. "Yannava," I answered, "we're walking," and then to explain ourselves a bit more, I added "tikak ballanava," "a little bit seeing."

"Yannava!," echoed our public and then, "tikak ballanava," like a tunnel of responses down the lane. One kid got on a bike shouting "yannava ballanava!," spreading the word that aliens had arrived. 

The road was easy going as we headed west, especially as we left the precincts of "town," passing a community hall, a tiny school, then what looked like pretty much nothing with a few houses in clearings among the trees and a glimpse of the tank. A man on a scooter came by. Always the beginning of a story when you're on these quiet roads. "I hear you came to see. What would you like to see? Would you like to see how we make clay pots?"

Would I ever I thought. So, on to our first detour. "This is my sister. She will show you how she makes pots." And with an insouciant concentration she sat down at a small electric wheel with a lump of gray clay on it. Out budded a pot. Budded is the only word I can use because literally it looked like she was squeezing a bit of clay to do her bidding. 

She took a bit of a sharp object and while the new vessel spun just sheared it off. Touch it. Hold it, she told me. Light as it was it felt strong to the touch and especially the beautifully proportioned rim provided a haven for the hands. Strange words I know but this is how I remember this pot, and also the pots that followed.  And now all the pots I look at and crave to touch here.  

Two pots were made from the single clump. Her hands were sure and they did just what they were supposed to. We saw pots drying in the sun, pots that would have the bottom hammered into them from material of the sides. Pots waiting to be fired and along the wall, pots ready to sell. Amazing to see her wood fired kiln, built with local bricks tightly packed with clay and on the roof of the kiln, slightly shorter than her five feet or so, a layer of wet clay with straw mixed in, about a foot thick. Wood was put in from the bottom and the fire was actively going. I remember the fussy fussiness we used at Medalta when it came to the wood firing, which I could see here off of IththaDemaliya Road, was the easiest and most natural way to build and utilize a kiln. 

The man on the scooter, her brother, invited us into the house to see their other products, very unfancy objects painted with red pigment. A ewer, a bowl, a couple of designed objects. We exchanged numbers and Janet and I said our goodbyes. Wish we could have taken a vessel but we were at the beginning of a long walk in the middle of bus travel. How to carry it? Why? These small masterpieces, created all over Sri Lanka, are available for a song anywhere you go in Sri Lanka. Even Arpico, Sri Lanka's plastic capital, carries clay pots. 

Down the road we continued a couple of hundred meters. Up on a rise to the left we saw a large kiln something like the one we'd just seen, built under a sturdy shelter. The one we'd just seen had a thatched shelter above it, more like a tent, just to keep out the rain. 

Just past this second kiln we saw that this place was an official crafts outlet. Janet said we owe it to then to step inside. So we did and were greeted by four women in half a dozen low-ceilinged rooms lined with pots in different stages of readiness. As in the place we saw just before we observed a large clump of gray clay, maybe a half ton of the stuff. I wonder of it's made from tank silt. The gray color wasn't like the reddish silt I touched and tasted near Mihintale but maybe other parts of the tank produce gray clayey silt like this. 

Again a clay lady showed how the pots were formed. A kind of pinching off a bud, nothing like I've ever seen. I thought about Coomaraswamy's chapter in Medieval Singhala Art and did a quick mental comparison with what I was seeing. Besides for electric wheels (he wrote at the beginning of the 20th century) there was no singing (at least while we were there), no helpers (who I could figure), and the biggest change is that these were women at work! I have always thought potmaking was a male domain. I was wrong. When did it become a women's craft? And where were the men? Must check with Deb Winslow who has spent decades on a pottery making village in Kurengala. 

The grace with which these pots were made was matched by the pots themselves. Simple, useful, pleasing to the eye, and very pleasing to the touch. I saw these useful everyday objects in a new light that shine favorably indeed. So much beauty and grace in simple movements and simple materials. No artifice or invention, which could be taken in a negative light were the pots not of their own perfection. 

Every day in Sri Lanka I see and learn new things and it's exhausting and a challenge to "get out there" but how thankful I am for the opportunity. 

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