The already dwindling demand of clay potteries, particularly for cooking purposes, is nothing new to Dilip Pal, a clay pottery artisan of Wazipur, Barishal.
During his childhood, he saw his craftsman father sell earthen cooking pots like hot cake at the village fair. At the time, the price of a rice pot was less than Tk2, but it was profitable.
Things have changed with the increasing popularity of metal and ceramic utensils in our kitchen. The pots are cheaper and longer-lasting than clay pots.
Dilip now mostly crafts idols prior to Hindu religious festivals. Seasonally, he makes clay pots, mainly for the Barishal-based yogurt factories. He crafts cooking pots also, but on very limited scale.
Because, "Foods cooked in clay pots relieve the eaters from 'gastric' problems", the artisan told this correspondent over phone.
Last winter, he crafted cooking pots worth around Tk15,000, keeping the Baishakh Fairs throughout the month of April, in mind. Then came the coronavirus pandemic that prohibited all social gatherings, including fairs. During normal times, he participated in at least 15 fairs in the Bangla Baishakh month. Dilip could not sell the pots to recover his investment as yet.
Gopi Pal, another artisan of Ghior upazila in Manikganj, has the same story to tell. He could not participate in the century-old Rather Mela of Savar, Dhaka.
All other artisans across the country have been forced to face a similar ordeal.
There was however a slight recovery when Prakritik Krishi Biponan Kendra, one of Dhaka's organic food retailers, made a social media call to its customers in June to buy clay pots produced by the pandemic-hit artisans.
Posting photographs of clay pots crafted by Gopi on the retailer's Facebook page on June 28, Prakritik Krishi coordinator Delwar Jahan wrote, "Protect yourself with non-toxic cooking, stand beside the Kumars (potters) during the pandemic".
The call received good response. Many of the page followers booked their purchase in advance. Some of the buyers enquired if the clay pots would be okay on gas burner or whether they were strong enough.
Over the next couple of days, supplies of bhater hari (rice boiling pot), kolosh (pitcher), bati (bowl), sora (lid) and muri bhajar hari (pot for puffing rice) arrived at the retailer shop in Mohammadpur, Dhaka.
Gopi joined a live video streaming from the page. He explained his plight, saying his business had been stalled because of a fall in demand. He also said cooking food in earthen pots, even on gas-burner, is safe. "If you buy the potteries, Kumar communities will survive," he urged the viewers.
Sales went up. The buyers were mainly regular customers of organic food. Some of them said they would use clay pots on an experimental basis. Some of them said they had bought the pots to help the artisans survive. Within a couple of weeks, all the pots had been sold, said the shop attendant Ashiq.
Benefits of clay pot
There are separate sections in all archaeology museums of Bangladesh for exhibition of earthen relics, particularly household utensils, which represent a living description of pottery art history.
Excavations of Pundrabardhan in Bogura, Paharpur in Naogaon and Mainamoti in Cumilla led to discovery of numerous centuries-old relics. Even a few decades ago, cookers in the urban kitchens used clay pots for preparation of food. The tradition now barely survives in some village kitchens, only for puffing rice.
The industrial production of metal pots, with aluminium-made ones dominating, has promptly supplanted the traditional utensils for cooking.
The metal pots are long-lasting, easily washable and available at the closest market. And they are posing health risks too.
According to science journals, cooking food in aluminium pots, pans or dishes may be related to children's lower intelligent quotient.
In 2017, Science of the Total Environment published a study discussing how cooking in aluminium pots causes lead and cadmium contamination in food.
According to the study, cadmium is carcinogenic, neurotoxic for children and causes kidney damage, while lead exposure in children is linked to brain damage, mental retardation, and a range of other health effects.
Use of non-stick pans also poses health risks. It is linked to PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination. The man-made chemical compound that is found in non-stick utensils does not break down in human body. PFAS is blamed for increasing cholesterol levels, thyroid hormone disorder and low infant birth weights, according to a journal of the US National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine.
On the contrary, thanks to its alkaline nature, clay pot interacts with acidity in the food, thereby neutralising the pH balance.
Because of clay pot's heat resistance, the porous nature and slow cooking features, the food needs little amount of oil to be moisturized. Moreover, the food doesn't lose any nutrient.
Ecology and biodiversity researcher Pavel Partha discussed the use of clay pots from three perspectives – human health and environment, sustainable economy and culture.
Proper fermentation of yogurt only happens in clay pots as there are numerous tiny pores in the earthen items. Sweetmeats and yogurt prepared in unglazed clay pots contain good bacteria. Clay water storage containers also work as natural filter and cooler.
It has been proven that coronavirus survives longer on the surface of plastic or metal and less on the earth. Hence, use of clay pot can build a bit of resistance.
"The profound benefit of clay pot is it does not contaminate food with toxic compound. As they essentially come from soil, the pots easily get decomposed into it when we discard them," Pavel said.
Therefore, higher use of clay pots could help revive the age-old business as well as ensure the artisans' inclusion into a sustainable economy. Pavel also urged the government to provide the marginalised community with stimulus.
In post-cholera-kala-azar-Spanish flue, European and American nations brought drastic changes in their lifestyle. They had changed their architectures indoor and outdoor.
"Can't we bring a little change in our kitchen room when the use of clay pots can help survive a community?" the researcher asked.