In Gandhi’s Gujarat, Potters Keep A Shine On Hindu-Muslim Amity
2 October 2017
Gajanan Khergamker, Sarkhej Roza (Ahmedabad)

Pots On Display For Sale at Sarkhej Roza
Every morning, a disheveled Rehman Sumra of Kheralu village in Mehsana, North Gujarat rummages through his wares salvaging whatever he can, packing them away readying for his annual journey to work. He looks at the cloudy skies hoping for them to clear soon. Each passing day seems like an enormous hurdle for the Muslim potter who, like most of his sort, was hit the worst with the most recent Gujarat floods. “Ab barish kab ruke aur hum Amdavad jake kamane lage aise lagta hai (With the rains having stopped, it’s time to go to Ahmedabad and start work),” he says. The last three months at his village have been an ordeal for Rehman who is all set to leave for Ahmedabad, with his wife in tow, to earn his keep.

Running out of money, the Sumra potter has had to incur unexpected expenditures in repairing his flood-hit village home - a double whammy for him. Waiting for the rains to stop before starting work again was an annual affair for the potters who work primarily in Ahmedabad. This time around, things just got worse. It fetched with it, losses that were unaccounted.

Potter Rehman Sumra (Second from Left) with family
While the Centre had to deploy additional forces to assist the state administration reach out to flood-affected areas especially in the North Gujarat districts of Banaskantha, Patan and Mehsana and rescue those stranded in far-flung villages marooned by flood waters, the weakest were hit the worst. Of the 55,000 people evacuated to safety as water levels rose and wreaked havoc across the state, this potter community was hit badly.

Left with little option but wait it out in the monsoons when all pottery activity comes to a halt, owing to the inability to dry clay pots, the potters simply cannot bear to suffer any financial loss. After all, it is a hand-to-mouth existence for them.

After the inordinate three-month period when the family lived of the earnings from pottery made, sold and which came to a naught, Rehman with wife Mariam are set to return to Sarkhej in Ahmedabad to start the grind once again.

The Sumras, incidentally, boast of an ancestry traced back to Iran’s Samra district. The one thing common to them and probably their rich ancestry is a distinct sense of pride. In addition, contrary to the stereotyping associated with the community, the men and women work shoulder to shoulder in doing what each can, the best.

While Rehman does arduous physical tasks, Mariam handles those that are equally backbreaking. Lifting heavy pots, bags of clay, and creating artistic pots are gender-neutral activities for the community.

So now, come September, about a hundred-odd Sumras from Mehsana head out to Ahmedabad’s Sarkhej Roza area where they set up ‘makaan’ and ‘karkhana’ as they call ‘home’ and ‘workshop’ at spaces they lease for five years at a stretch.

The excessive rainfall this year in Central and North Gujarat, including Mehsana wreaked financial havoc. Back in their villages, the Sumras lived of their earnings taking a break from their pottery activities. This time around, the wait to return to work seemed endless. “Ek toh paisa khatam ho gaya aur kaam bhi nai aur upar se nuksaan (We are through with our savings, there’s no work back in the village and to top it the financial loss owing to the rains),” says Mariam who runs a make-shift general store back in her Sarkhej Roza makaan providing grocery to their potter counterparts.

The economic activity has carved out a beautiful socio-cultural structure as the ‘Muslim’ Sumra makes pots for predominantly ‘Hindu’ Kumbhars in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra moulding secular ties especially in troubled times.

And, with the rain clouds beginning to recede and humidity in the air ebbing, the Sarkhej Roza suburb of Ahmedabad will be home to Rehman and hundreds of other Muslim potters for the next eight months. From an imminent Diwali until the next rains, ‘Chaumasa’ as they call the monsoons, they will make thousands of pots bought by whole-sellers and retailers alike.

Rehman’s brother-in-law Imran Haji Sumra is all of twenty years, lives in an adjacent shanty with his family and is responsible for transporting pots to cities in South Gujarat like Surat, even Valsad. In barely a few years of ‘business’, he bought an Acer which can transport 700 matkas at one time to any place one may need delivered. For instance, for an ‘order’ of pots to be delivered to Surat, a good 350 kms away from Ahmedabad, Imran earns a flat Rs 7,000. And, this he earns on a regular basis once “season starts”.

Each Kumbharwada, as a settlement of potters is known, has approximately 20 homes of potter families residing and working together. They may mostly be from Kheralu as Rehman’s family and in his Kumbharwada. Another could be a collective mostly from another village usually of Mehsana or Patan. The shanties lined next to each other and covered with huge plastic sheets, adorn unsold pots placed in beautiful symmetrical patterns, in rows and on top of each other, waiting to be sold in the wholesale market. The Sumras, on their part, specialise in making pots of different shapes and sizes for storing water and keeping it cool during summers.

The pottery process isn’t exactly an easy one. A Sumra says, that merely getting the clay or Chikni Mitti, a raw material used for the pots, is a tough job. One needs to order it from Sanand where the clay is procured from lake beds. A tractor-full of mitti, used to make approximately 500 pots, costs Rs 2,000. Once the pots are made, they need to be coloured with geru (earthen colour), which is ordered from village Thaan, about 120 km from Sarkhej Roza.

“I have been coming here for the past twenty years. In fact, I live here and only go back to my village if I have to attend a family function,” says 50-year old Noori. Mother of Imran, the single-point transporter, Noori’s is Sidhpur village in Patan district. Of her three sons and two daughters, Noori has managed to fetch an education for a son who has just completed M.Com. and is now the most educated among the lot.

Shahida, one of Noori’s daughters, comes to Sarkhej every year to help her mother in the family business and then return to her in-laws to Mandali village in Mehsana. “I come to help my mother in colouring and baking the pots,” says Shahida, while cooking for the family. Father-in-law Ibrahim Sumra and wife Ruksana rest on the makeshift bed as Noori ducks to dodge the low ceiling fan to sit next to them. “It is important to keep the fan low so the pots can dry quickly,” she maintains.

Noori (Second from Right) with her daughter and in-laws at Sarkhej Roza
This year around, Noori has travelled with three goats all the way from her village to ensure milk for grandchildren. “Lekin, inko rakhna bhi toh mehenga padta hai (But, rearing goats too is a costly affair),” she says. Just buying fodder for the three goats costs about Rs. 100 on a daily basis.

Making ends meet until there is enough demand for pots is tricky. Sometimes, the pots don’t sell as expected, which is when the potters leave them in their karkhanas and return to their village only to come back next year and sell the same during Diwali. Ironically, their ‘temporary’ makaans and karkhanas seem more permanent to them than their native villages in North Gujarat.

The potter families, who come to Sarkhej Roza in Ahmedabad, have been arriving there regularly for the last 15 years. The families in a Kumbharwada have just one landlord who owns the entire plot and rents out each shanty for Rs 1,200 per month. With an additional expenditure of electricity, the charges add up to Rs 2,000 per month and the potters don’t have to pay any deposit. They make five-year agreements and work entirely on trust.

Intriguingly, all members of the potter family pitch in to make a collective earning. If the man of the house is busy with the pottery business, the woman sets up shop selling daily-use items such as tobacco and others, in her makaan itself, and for the consumption of co-potters. The children take care of the goats.

While the potters comprise only Muslims they deal with predominantly Hindu wholesale dealers who truck away pots in bulk. Ahmedabad’s Vejalpur-based Girish Prajapati a regular wholesale dealer says he feels at home when he comes to Sarkhej Roza to buy pots. “I am a Prajapati, a Hindu potter and I always buy my wares from a Sumra, a Muslim potter. We have been doing business for many years now…without a single problem!” he sums up.

Lessons to learn on tolerance!

This article first appeared at The Village Square. It concurrently appeared in The Wire and The Quint.