Survival amidst cultural erosion: Potters of Salmora, Majuli

Article by Anuradha Barua

Majuli is the largest inhabited river island in the world with a population of approximately 167,304 with a density of 300 individuals per sq. km; distributed in 144 villages with 192 hamlets (Census Data, 2011). It became the first island in India to be made a district in 2016. It is bounded by the Subansiri River to the north and the River Brahmaputra to the south. It was formed as a result of course changes by the River Brahmaputra and its tributaries.   Many ethnic groups including Mishing, Deori, Sonowal Kacharis, Koch, Ahom, Chutiya, Kalita, Brahmin, Keot and Sut are based here. This river island is home to Assam’s magnificent cultural heritage and the Vaishnavite shrines commonly known as the Satras. Apart from being known for its unique geographical location, Majuli is also known for its rich cultural traditions and practices such as mask making, boat making, pottery etc. Archaeologists say Majuli’s pottery offers a missing link between the Indus valley civilization of Mohenjodaro and Harrapa during which the pottery industry flourished.

Salmora is one of the villages of Majuli situated on the South East bank of the River Brahmaputra at a distance of 25 km from Garamur. The population inhabited in this region is heterogeneous in nature distributed across three hamlets (suburi) namely Borboka, Kamjan-Alengi and Bessa Mora-Aflamukh. Salmora as a whole is known for and dominated by a traditional group of potters known as the Kumars. Salmora has a total population of 3245. Out of which 75.93 % belongs to the Kumars, 10.07 % are Kaibarta, 4.62%  are Kalita, 4.56% Mishing, 2.52% Jogi, 1.69% Bania, 0.43% Brahmin and 0.15% Ahom (Census Data, 2011; Das. M). Pottery is a traditional form of the cottage industry of Majuli. Pots were usually traded for paddy which is the staple food of the people of this island. Therefore, potters travel from village to village to exchange pots for paddy especially after the harvesting season. Historically, pots were sold along the Brahmaputra from Dhuburi to Sadiya. Pottery is an ancient craft of human civilization. For both cultural and economic prospects, the pottery industry is significant. As a small-scale industry, it helps to generate jobs, promote inter-sector linkages, increase exports and reduce regional imbalances. Pottery is considered an internal and inseparable part of the history of man. Moreover, it is often regarded as a mirror of a society’s cultural trends. Besides, pottery can depict a population’s way of life and culture. In fact, pottery which is the purposeful creation of potters is an important element of material culture. In this context, it is worth quoting Girder. Girder observes that “First and foremost archaeologists believe that ceramics can reflect the culture of a people such that the main forces of cultural change that affect a society are reflected in their ceramics” (Girder, 1974:850-1).

Photographs by the Author
Pictures from the site

In the region of Salmora, the pot making process is unique and different from the way clay pots are created elsewhere.  In the Kumar community of Salmora, a unique aspect of pot making is that the potter’s wheel (chak) is not used to produce the utensils. It is handmade and the crafting process involves only women. As oral history suggests, wheel-thrown pottery was initially a masculine job along with handmade pottery intermittently practised by their womenfolk but these dynamics soon began to change. The demanding economic situation prompted them to learn the process of making utensils from other skilled crafters (family members) and eventually the knowledge of this craft was acquired by a large population of women within the community and by the early 19th century, the women of Salmora completely dominated the craft while the male members helped in the baking and marketing processes. It would not be out of context to suggest that the most striking and peculiar aspect is that the religious institutions such as Satras accept the pottery produced by both the genders without discrimination which is an unusual phenomenon where the notion of purity and impurity related to pottery by sex and how it is made has been completely ignored. This social inclusion and recognition do have a positive impact on the women of Salmora. It has currently become a popular practice with the promotion of village endogamy therefore maintaining, retaining and expanding their area of expertise. But with passing time this traditional livelihood practice suffers from numerous problems.

The major problems are discussed below:

  • Procurement of raw materials

Clay is the primary raw material used in the process of pottery making. The major issue for the pottery artisans in the region is the lack of availability of raw materials. A 60-70 ft deep pit in the riverbank has to be to dug to procure the glutinous clay required to make the utensils which is a difficult and risky work for the workers. It may only be possible for skilled artisans to identify and collect the requisite clay. Due to high land erosion in Majuli in  2004, the Brahmaputra Board came forward with an anti-erosion project wherein digging of clay pits alongside the riverbanks were restricted.  As a result of which the artisans faced the non-availability of raw materials. The collecting and purchasing of the raw materials became highly costly in comparison to the profits from the products they were making thus leaving them with no other option than to use low quality clay which has less output and low demand in the market. In Dakhinpat Kumargaon, majority of the people within the Kumar community has therefore dropped their age-old pottery-making practices (Regon, 2019).

  • Lack of infrastructure and economic problem

The lack of proper infrastructure is also one of the major problems for the pottery artisans. Due to lack of a specific working place or storehouse, the artisans are unable to work during the flood season. Most of the artisans stop making pottery for the entire flood season that can last to 3-5 months due to lack of proper working and storing place. For many families, pottery is their main source of income. Due to frequent land erosion, there is no permanent land for agriculture and animal husbandry (the majority of the people) in Majuli. They are not financially stable enough to invest money to develop a pottery industry on a full scale. The pottery artisans also do not possess a technical certificate to receive financial assistance from other organizations such as banks and finance companies. Also, there is a credit crisis among the pottery artisans. It is important to note that they are not provided with a loan by the banks because many of them do not have permanent land and property to provide loan security. Family, relatives, moneylenders are their only source of investments.

  • Lack of a marketing strategy

The finished products made by the artisans are required to get a sound market. Marketing involves various tasks like pricing, advertising, products development, market research etc. The market depends on consumer needs and satisfaction. Pottery industry is mostly run by individuals with sole proprietary. Due to it being an unorganized sector, the marketing system is not systematic. There is no specific market place for selling these products. The male member go for marketing to various parts of Assam through boat ways and roadways for around 25- 35 days. The products are also not produced on a contractual basis. So it is not necessarily sold making profits every season. Mostly the products are sold at good prices during the festive seasons. The lack of a proper market place, fixed pricing and an adequate profit-making strategy the income and cost of production of the artisans are rarely equivalent.

  • Diminishing future prospects

The future of Majuli’s pottery industry relies on the responsibility of society, government and non-governmental organizations. People must understand the importance, respect and appreciate the traditional handmade pottery culture. In the name of modernization, high use of plastic accessories is embraced by people and indigenous crafts are avoided in everyday life without worrying for a single minute about how it can impact the human body and environment. Owing to the scarcity of raw materials, competition from new machinery goods and lack of market demand, most artisans today avoid the occupation of pottery making.

But essential and adequate measures taken as a way forward to preserve and enhance this unique livelihood practice can save this dying culture. It is an eco-friendly industry that has every potential to be promoted on a global platform. With proper skill development training programmes and modern and traditional techniques hand in hand, issues of a large number of rural unemployment can be tackled by involving the masses in the process of pottery making to self-sustain as well as to facilitate a pottery-making culture in Assam which may gradually help the GDP and foreign export of the country. To facilitate optimal exploration of this handmade pottery industry, the government should provide both incentives and assistance along with a conducive environment to promote the industry globally. By developing a full-scale pottery industry, rural and urban migration among the workers can be decreased to a great extent. With the help of this development, basic employment opportunities can be provided in our local villages.

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