Diwali, the festival of lights, is unimaginable without ‘diyas’ or clay lamps. However, with the influx of cheap Chinese lights into the market, people have started shunning traditional diyas, leaving diya-makers struggling to make both ends meet.
Phulapokhari, about 30 kilometres from Bhubaneswar, is a small village where retailers buy exquisite diyas for as low as 80 paisa from poor artisans and do brisk business. With Diwali around the corner, Sunday POST visited the village to hear the artisans’ life stories.
Phulapokhari houses 60 families out of which 40 are from the potter community. The others are farmers. The potters’ houses can be easily identified with the clay lamps, including diyas, and pots being dried outside their houses. Be it Sunday, Monday or any other day, the wheel never stops spinning from 6am to 5pm.The potter’s gentle touch transforms a lump of clay into different products. This is a daily affair for Phulapokhari potters. Throughout the year, the potters’ families make pots, diyas, and idols of different Gods and Goddesses. Each house has a potter’s wheel and an oven for baking. The men work with the clay while the women are involved in the baking process as well as in putting finishing touches to the objects, including decorative embellishments and paint. After drying in the sun, the diyas are put in the oven and baked for around 4-5 hours and covered with leaves. The colour and shine of the diya depends on how much it is covered during the baking. Though these potters have been keeping the age-old tradition of celebrating Diwali with earthen diyas alive, they resent the lackadaisical attitude of the state government towards their craftsmanship.
“In the last few years, people have begun celebrating Diwali by lighting electric lights and lamps made in China and the tradition of lighting diyas is slowly fading. But there is nothing like the light of a diya to dispel the darkness of ignorance,” says the seniormost potter in Phulapokhari, Padma Lochan Behera.
He adds: “This is our family business and I have been doing this for the last 30 years. We are four brothers, but I am the only one who is keeping the tradition alive. My siblings are into other businesses. Diya making is not everybody’s cup of tea as it is a lengthy process. We have to mix the clay with sand and ash, give it a shape and leave it to dry under the sun. It’s not a one-man job. My wife assists me in making diyas. At least four members are required to make diyas. My wife and I divide the work between ourselves. Our children have chosen to follow other professions of their choice. We hardly make any profit from the business. I prepare 10,000 diyas during Diwali and get 10 paisa profit per piece which is nothing if compared to the labour we put in. However, retailers and wholesalers rake in the bucks by selling at double the price.”
Ajay Muduli is a class VII dropout and has been making diyas and idols for the last 15 years. He says, “Pottery making is in decline, especially with modern lamps and lights being easily available at affordable prices, but we cannot leave our ancestral tradition. Though the cost of clay is rising, we have decided not to stop making diyas even though it is a time-consuming affair. We start preparing during Durga Puja to create the earthen lamps for Diwali. Every year, I make 25,000 diyas during Diwali. Earlier, I used to sell all my stuff much before the festival of lights. However, the scenario is different these days. It is easier for me to sell all the stuff to wholesalers after Chinese products flooded the market.
“We have written to the government a number of times to ease the process of availing loans so that we can carry on with our craft, but in vain. In the absence of government assistance, the tradition is on the verge of extinction. Apart from providing a square meal a day to my family, I am not able to save a single rupee for the future. Our children are now thinking of taking up jobs as we hardly make enough money to meet our daily needs.”
According to potter Ananta Behera, “Nothing can compare to the divine light of an earthen lamp. Lighting of an earthen diya marks the commencement of something auspicious in our lives. But people no longer fancy these diyas. Else, they would not go for colourful Chinese lights. Burning clay lamps is cumbersome. One has to fill them with oil, place wicks properly and then light them. This takes time. Plus, both oil and the diyas are expensive. That is why many choose to illuminate their homes with Chinese lights instead of diyas. The wholesalers who buy earthen diyas from us at cheap rates make a fast buck in the market. They buy 1,000 pieces from us for only Rs 500.”
Pitamber Behera says, “Potters are facing a lot of problems. We find it difficult to get clay and firewood. Besides, we don’t get our due which is why our children don’t want to take up this profession. Traders from Kolkata do brisk business in the state by selling Chinese products whereas local artisans are leading a life of penury. Though media has highlighted our plight many times, the state government is yet to pay heed.”
He adds: “Earlier, we used to collect clay from the Kathajodi riverbank. Now, we are not allowed to do so following the restrictions imposed by the state government on lifting sand and clay from the riverbanks. We started depending on farmlands to get clay. After builders came up with apartments everywhere, we are facing an acute shortage of clay to make diyas and idols. We used to depend on forests to collect firewood for baking the earthen diyas. The government has put a full stop to that too. There was a time when I used to make 30,000 diyas during the Diwali season. This year, I have made only 10,000 diyas keeping in mind that people seem to want Chinese lights.”
Pitamber says, “We sell a diya for Rs 2 to the shopkeepers who then sell it for Rs 10. Had the government provided a proper platform for us, we could have earned a better price for our creations.”
Harsha Behera, an octogenarian, says, “Buyers do pay a good price for the pottery products that we make, but the profits never reach us. We sell a small-sized diya at 80 paisa to wholesalers who in turn demand Rs 2 for the same from customers. That is why we now avoid the middlemen and sell directly to customers. Recently, we opened a shop where I supply diyas. None of my sons have taken up this traditional occupation because they know that the earnings are not enough to keep the home fires burning.”
Santosh Behera, who works in a private hospital, says, “I could have joined my family business after completion of my studies. But I have seen how my parents struggled to raise me and my siblings. None of us has taken up pottery making. We are well-settled and happy. But when we get free time, we do chip in to make diyas.”
Jhuna Muduli, who took up pottery making after marriage, rues the lack of government attention and assistance. “It is high time the government helped the artisans who are trying their best to keep the pottery tradition alive in Phulapokhari. The government should ease the process for availing loans so that potters can buy tools to improve their craft in keeping with the changing times.”
RASHMI REKHA DAS, OP