Gone are the idyllic days of the pottery industry.
Vendors carrying clay-made cookware, kitchenware, and money banks etc on their shoulders and selling those utensils moving home to home were a common sight in rural Bangladesh even in the nineties, which is a rarity nowadays.
The number of pottery villages is decreasing day by day in the wake of falling demand for pottery products, application of old-fashioned technique, capital shortage, scarcity of raw material sources, and many potters' quitting their ancestral profession due to low income, according to industry insiders.
Now, prominent pottery villages are found in Cumilla, Patuakhali, Dhaka, Narsingdi, Manikganj and some other districts in the northern part of the country.
"Our ancestors were involved with the occupation for hundreds of years. I have learned the techniques from my father and am still continuing the job," said Bimol Pal, a 50-year-old potter from Kakran village under Dhamrai upazila in Dhaka.
"However, we do not want our children to continue with this occupation as they are not earning the minimum income to survive with our family members. My son now works as a goldsmith out of the village," he added.
While on a visit to the village last week, this correspondent was informed by Bimol that around 150 families were involved in making pottery products in our village but the number of such families now stands at 25-30.
Unable to deal with the problems engulfing the age-old industry, they have left their ancestral profession, he said, adding that many have even left the country to neighbouring India.
Quoting from a 1999 book entitled "The Potter's Art" by eminent US scholar Henry Glassie, Dr Dilruba Sharmin, a pottery researcher and also a teacher of Japanese Studies at Dhaka University, said approximately 680 villages were dedicated to pottery-making in Bangladesh and nearly half a million people used clay to make art.
"But the number has decreased over the last two decades. We did not find more than 350 pottery villages in recent years," she added.
"Most of the people involved in the pottery industry are underprivileged and uneducated. But they are a skilled workforce for this handicraft industry," she maintained.
The workforce can be categorised into four major types – skilled potters, wage workers, self-employed and part-time potters.
Of the total workforce engaged in making pottery products, around 60% are men and 40% are women, according to a research published in October this year in the journal of the Archaeology department of Jahangirnagar University.
The research was conducted in three villages – Kakran Kumar Para in Dhamrai, Aria Para in Bogura and Rayer Bazaar Kumar Para in Dhaka.
Struggling with poor profit
"Generally, February-October is the season of pottery business and the profit margin in this business is very poor. My monthly turnover was around Tk100,000 in the season before the Covid-19 outbreak, while the profit was not more than Tk15,000.
The amount is not sufficient to bear family expenses around the year," said Bimol Pal, explaining the reasons behind potters' leaving the age-old profession.
In Kakran Para, they used to make different types of products from clay but, these days, they are mainly making the "doi sora" (bowl used to make curd) as per market demand.
"The production cost of a doi sora is around Tk8, while the selling price is around Tk12. But the demand for curd decreases in winter, which also impacts our business," added Bimol.
Meanwhile, the price of raw material (clay) is a big issue for them.
Stiff competition from metal and plastic products
Amid the advancement of modern technologies, potters in the country have been marginalised due to stiff competition from metal and plastic products.
Debashis Pal, associate professor of ceramics department at Dhaka University, said, "Our traditional potters are lagging behind as they have not got the touch of modern technologies in case of fire furnace, wheel, soil filtering machine. And there is a lack of proper government support and training to prepare them for working in a modernised atmosphere."
Product diversity is significant to survive
Even though the demand for traditional pottery products has decreased, people, especially those living in cities, prefer earthenware to decorate their interior in order to create a subtle ambience. And potters are trying to survive by preparing items that have aesthetic value.
"Pottery products have a significant aesthetic value and people are attracted to these items. So, increasing product diversity can help the industry compete with the other products, as it is environment-friendly," said Dr Sufi Mostafizur Rahaman, professor of archaeology at Jahangirnagar University.
"There was a time when potteries were used to be sold only at the roadside next to Charukala, Shishu Academy and a few other places, but now a number of pottery markets and big lifestyle stores like Aarong, Bibiana, Jatra, and Idea Crafts sell potteries to serve the consumer demands," said Dr Dilruba.
Covid-19 deals a major blow
The ongoing pandemic also has hit the business of marginalised potters of the country.
Potter couple Robi Pal and Rochona Rani are highly disappointed with the business in the time of the pandemic.
"We mainly produce some fancy products such as pen pot, flower vase, etc. In the pre-pandemic period we usually sold around nine "boda" (5,000 pieces of utensils make a boda) in a season, but the demand has come down one boda this season due to Covid-19," said Robi.
"Our products are sold mainly in the different fairs and festivals like Pahela Baisakh. But most of the fairs were not held during the pandemic, which has hit the business hard. I am around Tk2 lakh in debt and the bulk of the amount has been taken during these tough times to lead the family of five members," he added.
Another potter Bimol said, "The pandemic hit the business more. Now average turnover is around Tk50,000 per month, which was Tk1 lakh before the pandemic," he added.
What the government is doing
Pottery is considered a small and cottage industry. The Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) officials said they have arrangements of training and loans for new entrepreneurs as well as others.
"We have been conducting six training programmes for 13 types of trades including pottery. New entrepreneurs aged 18-35 years can get loans from Karmasangsthan Bank. Entrepreneurs from other age groups can get loans from the BSCIC," said Jesmin Nahar, chief designer at the Design department of the BSCIC.
"For now, we do not have any door-to-door initiative for the modernisation of traditional potters. But we will consider it in future," she added.