Given the limited commercial prospect, making 'matka' could have been a lost craft. But it is not, thanks to an age-old Bangalee food.
Traditionally used for storing rice, the large, pear-shaped earthenware is also essential for making the famous chepa shutki, a fermented fish preparation that needs this pot specifically to achieve the fermentation.
This ended up becoming the reason why Shubhash Chandra Paul of Sherpur district can continue to earn a living as a potter.
Given that there's only seasonal demand for the earthenware, potters cannot earn a consistent income from their craft. Independent producers like Shubhash also struggled with shortage of working capital during the peak season (November-March).
But this changed three years ago when Shubhash and others like him found employment at a matka factory, located in Mymensingh district's Haluaghat upazila.
At the factory, the potters work from dawn to evening, earning Tk15,000 per month on top of accommodation, food and toiletries. For workers like Shubhash, employment here means a steady income, with an opportunity for some savings too.
With necessary logistics and materials – yard, kiln and earth – the potters can mass produce these matkas.
In 2018, potter Ajit Paul along with his brother Dilip Paul and nephew Jayanta Paul, started the matka-making facility on a two-acre land, adjacent to the Haluaghat-Dhobaura Road.
Their factory exists to serve a unique need. Amid market expansion of plastic products, a huge demand for matka still exists across the north-eastern haor region for fermenting a special variety of dried fish product called the chepa shutki. The business manufactures these for producers of chepa shutki.
"Matka is a crucial tool for the fishermen of Sylhet, Netrokona, Kishoreganj, Brahmanbaria and Mymensingh," Ajit said.
A day at the factory
The factory has around 12 workers and is located in the middle of paddy fields, which surround it on three sides.
It has three kilns and three large sheds made of straws and bamboo. To onlookers, the view of the factory area consists of piles of fire-burnt matkas and raw topsoil.
The factory collects the earth from a distant paddy field located in a village called Akanpara, informed the workers during their lunch break under one of the sheds. They had rice with pholi fish, lentils and pumpkin.
After lunch they got to work. One of the potters, Anir Paul, began mixing clay with ashes, which will eventually be formed into a dough. At the end of processing, the dough would weigh around seven to eight kilograms. It then gets stored under a tarpaulin for use the next day.
For that day's matka making, Shubhash brought out dough prepared the day before. Just like preparing a bread dough, Shubhash sprinkled ashes on the ground and placed the dough on it to be flattened by feet.
Once the dough gets flat, it goes to the next phase of production where it is placed on an oval-shaped die. Shubhash spread the dough around the die and cut a small circle at the top. He then shaped the matka necks by hand using a wet towel and walking around the dies to create the round shape.
"Matka making needs skill. Practice makes me perfect," Shubhash said.
You need to have a very developed mental image of the shape you want to achieve, said Anir, "If you have the outline in your mind, you can do it."
After making the lower part of the matka in a similar fashion and drying them in sunlight, Shubhash attached the two parts with more clay, used like adhesive. The matkas would be dried again under the sun before being burnt.
The semi-dried maktas are kept vertically, one after another, around the kilns. The kilns have blank spaces inside to hold fuel wood.
The workers start a fire in the kiln at 8 pm. Initially, the fire would burn slowly and after a while they would add rice husk to increase the flame. The kiln would burn till 3 am, heating the matkas around it.
"In the morning, the fire-burnt matkas are ready. Some break or get damaged," Anir said.
The most common size for the matka is 30 inches in length. These have seven-inch diameter necks and a middle or a belly that is 24 inches wide.
According to Ajit, one of the owners, the factory has a production capacity of 5,000 matkas per month. He sells the matkas wholesale for Tk240 per piece.
The matka manufacturing business is dependent not only on the availability of suitable earth and skilled potters, but also, curiously enough, on the volume of rainfall.
And it has nothing to do with any of the actual mechanics in the production. If the monsoon comes with adequate rainfall, then fish production will increase, and so will the scope for more matka sales.
How matka is used in the dried fish industry
The preparation is not particularly complex, but time intensive.
This is the formula: A matka gets coated in fish oil followed by drying under the sun for a week.
Before packing the matka with semi-dried fishes, the oil-coated container is buried two-thirds of its length in the ground. Then the dried fish are stacked in layers inside the matka.
Once the matka is packed, its neck is sealed by a paste made of dry fish dust. The mouth of the matka gets sealed by clay.
The matkas are left for fermentation at room temperature. After a few months, the matkas are taken out of the ground and then placed under shade for maturing. "The usual period of maturation is four to six months but it may be extended to a year," Ajit said.
A new hope for the precarious profession
With plastic products becoming highly available and cheap, sales of earthen pots like pitcher and dhama (a large container for preserving food grains and seeds) are on a speedy decline, and many have left the pottery business.
Even the ones still in the profession are unlikely to pass the skills on to their children and bring the next generation into the profession, given the hardship. Pottery requires intense labour and the return is extremely disproportionate.
Ajit and his partners started the factory with the hope of keeping their profession alive. "It seemed impossible to get a decent income from pottery work. So, our thinking behind this was that mass producing matkas might help us survive by doing what we know," said Ajit.
They were right. It did become a successful business with others following in their footsteps. After their Haluaghat factory found success, a number of similar ventures were launched in the Mymensingh and Bhairab areas.
Shubhash too has been saving money to start his own matka factory. "I hope to start my own factory someday," Shubhash said. As long as there is a market for the chepa shutki, there will be demand for matka, he believes.