Winner of multiple awards, Sushanta Pal is the artist behind colourfully designed clay pots called ‘shokher hari’. But the glory days of traditional potters like him are long gone
Supported by a cane, Sushanta Kumar Pal, a pottery artist- approximately 60 years old- came to the door clumsily to welcome us.
"Did you have any difficulty in finding my home? Are you guys thirsty?" he enquired as we were sweating from the walk.
Yes, walking is the only way to reach Sushanta Pal's home as he lives in the heart of an eminent "paal" village (potter's village) called Baghdhani in Poba Upazila of Rajshahi.
The dirt roads of the village are not suitable for motorised vehicles.
Traditionally known for making clay pots, paals are also known as "kumar".
There is an old saying "baap betai kamar, chaye puye kumar" (It takes two to make a blacksmith but an entire family to make a potter).
This is true. Even an ordinary urn takes a lot of work to be crafted.
At first the paals collect the right soil from water bodies adjacent to their homes.
Then they refine it by plucking out the weeds and pebbles.
Then they smooth out the soil by smashing it.
Only then it becomes ready for the wheel and artists shape them the way they want and dry them under the sun.
Once the pal village used to be lively with their work. But now the desolate pathway shows that none of those old glory remains.
Only a few of the residents were seen supervising clay pots.
However, every one of them knew Sushanta Pal, the celebrated artist of "shokher hari" (specially designed clay pots).
This is why identifying his home was not difficult at all.
Outside his home, under the shed of a shabby black canopy, his son was making urns while his grandchildren observed him.
In the yard, several clay bowls and lids were laid bare under the sun to get properly dried.
His wife Sri Momota Rani Pal, who just started preparing lunch, was keeping an eye on them.
Beyond the yard stood two brick rooms with tin-shed ceiling and discoloured walls.
Such an ordinary household makes it hard to believe that its owner won a national award, 17 skilled artist awards on different occasions and has 13 books written on him.
While he was busy getting chairs for us, his trudging steps appeared to be a reflection of his, as well as his entire community's limping state.
Behind him, colourful shokher hari made especially for Baishakhi fair were stacked up in a pile.
They could be easily distinguished from regular clay pots for the use of folk motifs like with creepers, flowers, and birds on them.
The use of lemon yellow, red, and green colours were dominant along with black borders.
The lion share of their income comes from Baishakhi fair which sustains them for at least half a year.
The coronavirus lockdown, however, robbed them of their income.
Recently, a non-profit organisation called "Pashe Achi Initiative" stepped up and sold their products online on behalf of them.
Talking about this brought a smile to Sushanta's otherwise worried face.
Enthusiastically, he began to share the story of shokher hari.
"I am not sure of the timeline when it was first introduced, it probably dates back to centuries. It was the time when clay pots were the only utensils at homes," he said.
Our ancestors would hang them in different corners of the home using "shika"- a net made of plaited ropes- and kept clothes, foods, jewelleries, and even money in them.
"Plain pots on every corner give the home a dull look. So, the paals started decorating them with colours. They made the colours from natural elements like tamarind seeds, lime, and pollen from flowers," he continued.
Nobody taught them how to draw.
They would receive inspiration from nature and paint on the clay pots, giving them a colourful look.
With time, they became a part of the paal's traditional work.
From village markets to fairs, shokher hari was popular everywhere.
Sushanta Paul reminisced the time when he used to go to fairs like "Binnir mela", "Raghunath mela", and "Bhashan Jatra mela" with his grandfather.
In fact, he learnt the art of pottery design from him.
Muharram and Durga Puja were two of the biggest festivals which used to bring them profit and affluence.
Sadly, Sushanta did not get to experience that comfortable life for long.
He was barely a teenager when his father and uncles died, leaving him with the responsibility of their home.
By that time, the demand for shokher hari had already started to fade with the introduction of stainless steel utensils in the market.
But Sushanta never got the chance to receive formal schooling and his ancestor's skill that was passed on to him was all that he possessed.
He toiled day and night to support his family. He could not teach his sons beyond primary education because of poverty. They also started working with him from a tender age.
"We used to sell normal clay pots in village markets and took shokher hari to village fairs. After some time, all the village fairs were shifted to the towns," he said.
Dragging his products all the way to the cities increased the cost of his business.
Moreover, the fragile products sometimes used to get ruined on the way.
Around four decades ago he participated in the "Parjatan Fair" in Rajshahi. He was very demotivated as he sold only one pot in five days.
However, in the 1990s, his works drew the attention of a BSCIC (Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation) official named Alauddin. He suggested Sushanta participate in the BSCIC fair in Dhaka and assured to buy all his products if he failed to sell them.
Again, he could not sell any of his products in the 7 day fair in Dhaka.
But Alauddin was true to his words, and bought all 150 of his shokher hari.
Afterwards he started getting invitations to participate in fairs arranged by Bangladesh Folk Arts and Crafts Foundation, Folk Arts Museum, Bangla Academy, National Museum etc.
He even got a shop in the Folk Arts Museum premises, which is still an income source for him.
There he got to know other artists who were working with the decaying art of their ancestors.
Shokher hari, srighot, tepa putul, and handloom are not just mere products, these are different forms of art that speak of our root and origin through their motif, colour and overall presentation. But the artists are changing their profession as they are not getting proper recognition
"Shokher hari, srighot, tepa putul, and handloom are not just mere products, these are different forms of art that speak of our root and origin through their motif, colour and overall presentation. But the artists are changing their profession as they are not getting proper recognition," he said.
He feels that if we fail to protect the artists, a fundamental part of our tradition will get lost.
He has seen people earning the title "artist" by selling his works without giving him any credit. "We do not want money but people should at least recognise the source," he said.
He thinks people confuse designed clay pots with shokher hari, whereas the latter has some fixed motifs. To avoid such confusion, he urged the government to identify the original artists.
Bangla Academy and National Museum have documents of the real ones. They should be identified and permitted a monthly allowance
"Bangla Academy and National Museum have documents of the real ones. They should be identified and permitted a monthly allowance," he said.
According to Sushanta, financial security would encourage them to not leave their profession and uphold it instead.
Many other potters have already left the profession.
Some have taken up agriculture and some work as day labourers.
Only 10-12 houses in the village are making clay pots.
All they make are yogurt jars, pitchers, lids, bowls, and pots for puffed rice, that too in small numbers.
Shri Nondon Kumar Pal works in the field. His mother and wife make clay pots for some extra income.
They have a daughter.
They want her to be married into a paal family, but not those who are still dependent on crafting pottery for earning their livelihood as that would indicate never ending poverty.
They must have an alternative income source.