Traditional pottery fading with the times

January 6, 2014

Ma Aye Aye is beautiful. With pearly white skin, shiny hair and a dazzling smile, she defies her 34 years of age.But Ma Aye Aye is worried.

The daughter of two traditional pottery artisans, she has already watched the waves of exodus from other pottery families in Twante, a hamlet across the Yangon river from downtown.

“We cannot say if this business will continue after us. Maybe once our parents are retired, we will find other work,” she said, adding her sister left to work as a maid in Malaysia.

“This tradition is dying generation by generation,” she said.

Potters in Twante and the surrounding village have a unique geographical edge in having access to a high-quality clay that is only formed in 13 places in the whole of Myanmar. The clay is created when paddy mud washes into the river and is churned by fast-flowing currents, mixing it with river mud.

When combined with the mountain clay used across the country in ceramics, the river mud gives the baked pottery an attractive creamy terracotta hue.

Ma Aye Aye’s family goes to the river directly to harvest the river mud for their crafts.

Once a vibrant market centre for regional pottery, Twante, like many other nearby artisan villages, was all but levelled when Cyclone Nargis tore through the delta to Yangon in 2008.

When the cyclone hit, expensive and livelihood-gifting brick kilns were destroyed, firewood was drowned and wood and thatch houses collapsed in on themselves.

Inside Ma Aye Aye’s family workshop it is dark. A high thatched roof traps the plumes of clay powder that swirl in shafts of sunlight filtering down to the earthen floor that is cluttered with ceramic works in various states of completion. There are water jars, offering cups and flower pots, as well as a few made-to-order pieces of elegantly carved display pottery.

The family’s home is to the back of the compound, a similarly simple dwelling with earthen floor and thatch roof.

Without water or electricity in the family home, the whole operation is powered by hand. It can take nearly a full day to tease the fire in the kilns to appropriately high temperatures for baking the pottery.

Post-Nargis, the family has not been able to afford the repairs to return the workshop to its former glory: Two kilns remain completely collapsed in on themselves and repairs are slowly progressing on a third, leaving only one functioning oven for the workshop.

The devastation after Nargis forced about three-quarters of pottery families in Ma Aye Aye’s village to abandon their craft and seek work elsewhere, leaving only about 10 families who remained to try to resuscitate the craft that had nourished them for generations.

In the aftermath of the cyclone’s deadly path, some funding was received from a French NGO and UNICEF for potters in Twante to make ceramic water filters to send down to the delta to help relief efforts in that area.

But not all families had the manpower or the technical know-how to accept the massive order from the NGOs.

The job would have required the use of costly-to-operate electrical machines and a higher number of employees – who simply weren’t available after the cyclone wreaked devastation through the delta and Yangon.

“I don’t think the children will join the business,” Ma Aye Aye said of the two excitable toddlers crawling around the dirt floor of the family’s pottery workshop. “We will instead try to send the children to school.”

Ma Aye Aye’s family still makes all works by hand. They mainly produce small offering cups that are sold for K12 per cup wholesale and ceramic water containers.

To make their pottery, the family must first pound the mountain clay into a fine powder that can be sifted. Next, this fine powder is stamped into the river mud using bare feet, not unlike a Greek grape-crushing spectacle.

From this clay block, a potter can make up to 1500 small cups a day by hand and a spinning wheel, which are then left to dry in the sun and later baked in the family’s one remaining kiln.

If a pot fractures in the sun, it can be worked down, back to its clay form, but if it cracks in the kiln it becomes road rubble, Ma Aye Aye explained with a smile.

Her family makes between K800,000 and K900,000 per month, with a little under half – around K350,000 – as profit to support two grandparents, 4 adult children and 2 grandchildren.

There has been about a 40 percent increase in the cost of firewood and mountain clay in recent years, Ma Aye Aye estimated, adding that the rising costs couples with competition from mechanical or factory-style pottery workshops makes the traditional method of pottery more difficult every year.

In a nearby family-run workshop, 48-year-old Ko Tin Thaung likewise worries about the future of the craft.

Families or village representatives from all over Myanmar have travelled to Twante to learn the unique and highly coveted technique for making first-class ceramics, Ko Tin Thaung said.

“To learn how to kick and spin the pottery plate takes about one year,” he said. “And to learn to build a flower pot takes at least three years.”

The human-powered process of Twante’s disappearing pottery industry; from the stamping, mixing of clay, forming, skimming and decorating right through to the final product. Photo: Philip HeijmansThe human-powered process of Twante’s disappearing pottery industry; from the stamping, mixing of clay, forming, skimming and decorating right through to the final product. Photo: Philip Heijmans

But this traditional hand-powered turning of clay into beautiful works is quickly dying as electrical machines and moulds take the place of the artisans in Twante.

Ko Tin Thaung shrugs when asked about the future. For him, the only time he can think about is now.

This story first appeared in The Myanmar Times.

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