Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A revisit to memory lanes when utensils were down-to-earth

Picture by M.Elavenil
Caught in the rat race of modern age, the present generation, which is used to the utensils and containers made of metal and plastic, has little chance to know the cultural character of the yesteryear earthen utensils. Still, a home maker recollects her early days of using the traditional kitchenware and their cultural bond with the social life in rural Coimbatore.
“When the monsoon festival Adiperukku was celebrated after the flooding in river Noyyal at Perur on the 18th day of the Tamil month Aadi, it was a tradition to buy new earthenware utensils for home. The practice of buying a new pot for making Pongal is still followed on the Pongal festival, which falls of the first day of the Tamil month Thai” says S.Rani, a homemaker from Irugur and a native of Perur.
Listing the names of the earthen utensils bought for cooking rice and curry and storing curd and butter milk, Rani points out:
“The Kongu Tamil expressions of the earthen utensils as Saapaattu Chatti, Thatai Chatty, Kuzhambu Chatty and Sunda Chatty are no longer heard from the decline of pottery.”
In an age when weddings were conducted at home, Rani says that great quantities of rice and curry were cooked in the large earthen vessel called Moda. It was a time when pressure cookers were once things of luxury in Coimbatore.
“Before the arrival of frying pans made of stainless steel, the ones that we used to fry ground nuts were the broken pieces of earthen vessels. Instead of the Piramanai, a small ring-like cane stand for earthen water pots, we used the Valliyodu or Vaapadu, which is the corruption of the Tamil expression ‘Vaayodu’ – the neck of a broken pot” explains Rani.
Rani has many such typical terms from the vernacular of Kongu Tamil,whose etymologies are hardly found even in popular Tamil dictionaries and lexicons.
“We used to mention the pieces of the fibre from the stem of a palmyra leaf as Simbu. In the days when the earthen idly maker was in use, pieces of Simbu would be placed in a criss-cross pattern on each plate of the utensil to separate the batter spooned on it”
“The potter in our locality would be busy making earthen kitchenware for every home. There existed even a barter system in our village. The potter, in return for his supply of utensils, was paid annually with measures of rice, dhal and other grains, when Perur flourished in agriculture those days” Rani winds up


Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Revolving his Ancestors’ last Potter’s wheel

Hear me potter
Like a little lizard 
That travels with a cart, 
Perching on the wheel
I had traveled all the way with him 
Crossing many a wilderness
Have pity on me 
And make his funeral urn 
A little oversize

- Purananuru 256

With the excavation of a number of Mudhumakkal Thaazhis ( Earthen burial urns) whenever the land is dug for laying foundation to construct buildings, archaeologists have opined that  stretches of land in Irugur, a village on the outskirts of Coimbatore, could once be funerary sites of antiquity. It was a tradition in ancient Tamil society that the body of the dead would be placed in a large earthen urn and buried under the ground. With the urn symbolizing a mother’s womb and the dead body a fetus, ancient Tamils had a positive belief that death leads to rebirth.

Lyrics in Sangam literature call the man who makes earthen utensils as Kalamsei Ko (The potter, who makes earthen utensils). However, the vital role played by earthenware from kitchen to burial ground is history now after the advent of utensils made of metal.

“I do not know when and which of my ancestors pioneered making earthen utensils. But, I learned the art from my father and grandfather” says 76 year-old Sidhayyan, a potter from the Telugu-speaking Kulala community in Irugur.

He says that there would not be anyone in his family to continue his ancestors’ line of work. With the traditional occupation being in doldrums, his descendants lost interest in it and are working as lathe machine operators in the city.  

“Nevertheless, I still continue to be a potter, as I know only this occupation. At the same time, what the meager income I earn out of my work is just enough for my pocket money.” Sidhayyan informs.

The man points out that making pottery today is not as easy as it was in the past.

“My father used to extract clay from the Sulur Kulam and bring it loaded on bullock carts. But nowadays, we are not permitted to collect clay in the water body, as fishermen are given contracts to rear fish in the lake. Moreover, extraction of clay in the tank would also make its bund vulnerable to breach. With the discharge of industrial effluents, the Noyyal river in our village too has turned into a stagnated pool. So we have few chances to mine sand on the river bank either. However, we still make earthen vessels, but with the mud excavated at the sites of building construction. Though we buy a load of mud on a minidor auto at a price of Rs 400, the income we earn is too meager to suit the hard labour and time” worries Siddhayyan.

 The potter makes a variety of earthenware utensils that include Soppukudam, Thavalaikudam, Moda, Paanai, Sundachatti and Idlychatti, which were popular in the homes of yesteryear Coimbatore.  Besides, during festival times, Siddhayyan makes Uruvarams  (Earthen dolls), which the people buy from him and give as offering to Mariamman temples.     

The potter, assisted by his wife Rukmani, begins treading the clay in water in the appropriate early hours of the morning.

He throws the round, moist lump of clay on the head of the potter’s wheel. Then he revolves the wheel using a stick and makes the clay even by giving pressure with his hands. While the potter’s wheel revolves, the moist lump of clay yields to the creative hands of the potter to become beautiful earthen vessels.