The last of the Kujahalli potters

A twenty-minute tempo ride away from Kumta Railway station, life in Kujahalli goes on oblivious to the din of noise made by the waves at the beach. The village, named after the favourite occupation of its inhabitants – pottery – has undergone a silent transformation in the last twenty years. This reporter finds himself in the tempo in search of the last remaining potters in the village, the Gunugars.

The tempo navigates narrow pot-hole filled roads on its way to Kujahalli’s Hiriya Prathamika Shaale (Higher Primary School). Upon reaching the school, the driver signals to me that I should get off the tempo here. “You can try asking here,” he says before speeding off in a hurry.

I enter the school, to the bemusement of the children playing in the playground. I walk past a group of girls engrossed in a game of kho-kho before entering the first classroom I come across in the main building of the school. My appearance silenced the classroom, which only moments earlier, was filled with a cacophony of noise. The English teacher, who was trying to teach pronouns, almost seemed grateful for my presence. “I am looking for Gunugar. He is a potter in Kujahalli,” I announced, taking full advantage of the silence.

Children at the Kujahalli Primary School || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

At once, the English master switched from illustrative Kannada to broken English. “There are very few potters left here”, he said before turning to one of the students in the front row. “Ganapa, go to Section C and call Padmavati here”. Little Ganapa obeyed like a subedar taking orders and within moments, Padmavati was now in the classroom, looking as confused as the rest of the class.

The English master continued unperturbed. “Who was the man who made the big Hanuman statue for the temple last year? Doesn’t he live near your house?”. Padmavati continued to look at the English master in confusion. “What are you looking at? I am asking about the potter. What was his name?”

“Suresh Gunugar. He lives down the road from the Panchayat Office,” replied Padmavati, before the English master could sound off again.

“Aaah… Yes. Suresh Gunugar, down the road from the Panchayat Office,” repeated the master casually dismissing Padmavati from the classroom.

I thanked the headmaster for now I had a name for my search for the last potter of Kujahalli. I left the classroom, high-fiving Ganapa on the way out, and made my way towards the Panchayat Office.

After crossing the Panchayat office, I made sure I kept a look out for any house with pots left to dry in the front yard. At the sight of one such house, I enquired an old man standing at the gate, “I am looking for Suresh Gunugar”.

“That would be me,” replied the old man with a business-like tone. “What are you looking for?”

“I hear you are the last potter in Kujahalli,” I said as I ushered myself into his front yard.

“That’s not true. The neighbouring house also practices pottery but we are the only two families left in the village that are still making pots. Twenty years ago, there were fifteen families, or maybe more, making pots but soon one by one, the sons took up other jobs like coolie work, painting, driving. There is also Santayya Rama who stopped making pots when his eyesight failed him. Poor chap”, he lamented as he dug up photographs from years ago.

Suresh Gunugar, last of the remaining Kujahalli potters || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

For a moment, it was unclear if he was lamenting the condition of Santayya Rama or the declining importance given to what has become his livelihood for over 50 years. Once a thriving potter’s colony, Kujahalli (Kuja meaning pot and Halli meaning village) is survived today by two families still engaged in the laborious practice of making pots.

“Years ago, pots were a utility in every household. We made cups, plates, utensils and the traditional pots used to carry water. Today, we only get orders to make an idol or a decorative showpiece. Last year we made a 17 feet Hanuman statue for the Kujahalli temple,” added the 70 year-old.

Suresh Gunugar, at his home in Kujahalli. His sons Madhu and Mahesh will continue practicing pottery || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

In the neighbouring house, Lakshmi is crushing mud in the front yard, intently listening to our conversation. “You crush the mud, mix it with water and put it through the wheel,” she says.

Part of the only other family in the village still involved in the art, Lakshmi remembers the days when they needed a big lorry to carry all the pots they made. “The orders have died down. There used to be Gajanana, on the left turn after the Panchayat office but even he has stopped now. In a few days even I might stop making pots,” she contemplates.

The pots made in Kujahalli would once travel as far as Mangalore, but with the emergence of stainless steel, pots were systematically replaced, with those involved in the occupation seeking newer ways to compensate for the loss. In the process, a meticulous and time-consuming skill died a slow death in the village. Gunugar is among the last remaining potters in Kujahalli.

 

His family made a Hanuman statue for the village temple  a year ago, a sign of the family’s flexibility in today’s times. Gunugar however retains an unshakable sense of belonging to a different time and remains unmoved when asked whether he would leave his line of work. His sons Madhu and Mahesh are continuing the family tradition of making pots but admit that they are likely to be the last generation to keep the practice going in Kujahalli. “Those who buy pots from us are buying it for decorative purposes and not for the kitchen utilities. We cannot sustain what we are doing once the orders stop coming,” adds Gunugar.

 

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