Photo essay: “Araam” season in Dharavi’s Kumbharwada as potters cope with monsoon

In photos: Pottery has been a family-run vocation for generations for Kumbharwada community in Dharavi. As monsoon arrives the production is affected.

Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum is in the heart of Mumbai. Spread over 535 acres, approximately 8.5 lakh people live in approximately 55,000 dwelling units in Dharavi with a population density of 3.4 lakh per square km.

One of the many communities, living in Dharavi for decades, is the traditional potters community. ‘Kumbhar’ means pots and ‘Wada’ means colony. Dharavi’s Kumbharwada is where the magic of clay has been happening for decades together. Kumbharwada occupies about 12.5 acres in Dharavi, and is home to 500 potters’ families.

A well-settled and internationally famous colony, however, struggles during the rains. Production reduces drastically and the potters push through the dry spell. “The business comes down by almost 80 percent in the months of monsoon,” says Balaji, a potter from the community.

rain water falling over pots in buckets in kumbharwada, dharavi
Monsoon brings it’s own set of difficulties for Kumbharwada, apart from usual challenges of waterlogging and leakages. Pic: Stephin Thomas

Harjiwala has been making pots in Dharavi for over 40 years now. He plans his shift and works at three to four different places a day. He makes pots with impressive speed with his skilled, experienced hands.

But during monsoon, he cannot make more pots, because of limited space in the house of his owner. Pots take extra time to dry during monsoon. Unable to dry the pots outside their homes, the community cuts down on production.

Harjiwala says his children are not artisans, his son is an engineer. He is proud of the fact that he worked as an artisan for years and got his daughters married.

The process of pot making. Pic: Stephin
The process of pot making. Pic: Stephin Thomas

Iruben is one of the many old women in Kumbharwada, who are dedicated potters. She was a teenager when she learnt pottery. Her small house is dark and the gloomy, rainy day makes it harder for her to work. She sits at the entrance of her home to kneed the clay to get some light.

This correspondent noticed lack of light in most houses and narrow lanes were dark in the gloomy monsoon climate. Congested lanes of Dharavi become hotspots for malaria and other diseases. Open gutters often overflow and stagnant water is collected in many areas. But potters in Kumbharwada, go on with their lives.

Iruben preparing the clay by kneading it.
Iruben preparing the clay by kneading it. Pic: Stephin Thomas

Bhanuben carries these heavy pots on her head and walks for 1 km to sell it. She walks with confidence making the basket of pots on her head look very easily manageable. Even monsoon cannot stop her.

All set to carry the heavy weight of pots and sell them to shopkeepers. Pic: Stephin
All set to carry the heavy weight of pots and sell them to shopkeepers. Pic: Stephin Thomas

To bring a pot to its finished form, the dedication of not only the artisans but also there family is required. Their families are equally involved in the process.

In monsoon, the families dry the pots under fan inside congested houses, getting high electricity bills. Even if they feel cold during monsoon, they stayed under the fans several hours a day, allowing the pots to dry.

an artisan makes pots as others other pots are lined up for drying.
An artisan makes pots and keeps them for drying in a closed space.. Pic: Stephin Thomas

The potters call the monsoon season ‘aaram‘ (rest) season as there is nothing much to do. If one batch is not dry, they cannot start with a fresh batch. When the lean season arrives, they survive by taking other jobs.

Shop with lots of earthern pots located at the 90-feet road in Dharavi on a heavy rain day
A shop located at the 90-feet road in Dharavi on a heavy rainy day. Pic: Stephin Thomas

“I am also a tailor, the work of pottery was started by my ancestors I didn’t want to discontinue it and stop the legacy. During monsoon when pot making doesn’t give much profit I run my home by tailoring clothes but that business has also come down as not many people get their clothes stitched these days,” said Balaji.

Read more: Explainer: Dharavi redevelopment — What lies ahead

When you walk in the lanes of Kumbharwada during monsoon, it appears as if the entire Kumbharwada is put to sleep without an alarm to wake up.

People here have mixed feelings about the claims of government regarding the Dharavi redevelopment. Balaji says that he is being hearing about Dharavi’s redevelopment ever since he was a child. He no longer has any hopes from the claims that the authorities have made.

Bhanuben after delivering the orders of the shopkeeper. Pic: Stephin
Bhanuben after delivering the orders of the shopkeeper. Pic: Stephin

Nathalal Savanya is another pot maker who is been making pots since 1952 in Dharavi’s Kumbharwada. The old crowd in Kumbharwada has still kept themselves devoted to their traditional pottery skills.

Pots being painted by artisan. Pic: Stephin
Nathalal paints and decorates the pots in his small room. He hopes for a bigger space if redevelopment happens. Pic: Stephin Thomas

Even though he is old, his eyes sparkle when he sits to paint his pots. He has not lost hopes in Kumbharwada, and is expecting to get more space after redevelopment.

The young generations of Kumbharwada have moved away from pottery and shifted towards pursuing jobs in private and public sectors.

The journey of the pots end when they are displayed in the shops. Dharavi’s 90 feet road lane is filled with such tiny as well as big pot shops.

A shop in 90 feet road of Dharavi. Pic: Stephin
A shop in 90 feet road of Dharavi. Pic: Stephin

While some have left the craft of pottery due to the financial reasons, many continue to put in the hard work to craft handmade pots with love, to beautify our homes. Harjiwala, Bhanuben, Iruben, Balaji and Nathalal are some of these artistes, who have kept the Kumbharwada in Dharavi still alive.

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