A twenty-minute overcrowded tempo ride away from Kumta Railway station in Karnataka, life in Kujahalli goes on unaffected even as the people of the remote village in Uttara Kannada district have undergone a silent transformation in their way of life over the last two decades. This reporter accompanied by a plucky photographer finds himself in the tempo in search of the last of the Kujahalli potters.
Narrow pot-hole filled roads from the railway station lead to the Kujahalli Hiriya Prathamika Shaale (Higher Primary School) at which point the driver signals to us that we should get off the tempo. “You can try asking here,” he says as we step out for the first breath of fresh air in what seems like hours.
I enter the school, to the bemusement of the children playing in the playground, walking past fourth standard girls engrossed in a game of kho-kho before entering the first classroom I come across in the main building of the school. My unexpected appearance silenced the classroom, which only moments earlier, was filled with a cacophony of noise. The English master, 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.
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 in the army. 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. I was about to step in and put her out of her misery when the English master’s words cut me off. “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 his time before he could enquire further about what I was doing there. I now 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 is 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, painter, driver. 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.
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. But with the long look at the pots around him, it was clear that he was talking about pottery.
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. What went wrong?
“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,” elaborated the 70 year-old.
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 answering my unasked question.
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. ”
The youth in the village jumped at the chance of making a quick buck, by driving autos or tempos, by painting buildings or doing coolie work. The intricacies and discipline demanded by pottery, and other traditional arts that are dying out today, somehow failed to filter down to the current generation. Gunugar’s sons, Madhu and Mahesh, are the only survivors of the purge as they decided to stick to pottery. However, unlike Gunugar, who revels in making the traditional matka, the sons have transitioned into making vigrahas or idols.
The pots made in Kujahalli would once travel as far as Manipal and Mangalore, but with the emergence of the stainless steel, the traditional art was systematically replaced, with bread-winners seeking newer ways to compensate for the loss. What is lost in the process is not just the intricate pots made in Kujahalli but also the meticulous and time-consuming skill of pottery, handed down from generation to generation. People like Gunugar retain an unshakeable sense of belonging to a different time, a different era. They cannot leave this poorly-paid work, not knowing any other, but are likely to be the last generation to keep the practice going in Kujahalli.