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Etched Black Pottery from Azamgarh, Nizamabad, India: Chitra Balasubramaniam explores the pottery traditions of Bidri work.

THE TRADITION OF POTTERY, THOUGH SIMPLISTIC AND ANCIENT, BRINGS OUT MYRIAD NUANCES and differences in each of its various forms. One such different form that combines utility with a unique tradition of decoration is the Black Pottery from Nizamabad, Azamgarh District, Uttar Pradesh. Nizamabad is at a distance of approximately 1356 kms from Delhi. What makes the black pottery of Nizamabad unique is that it is lustrous black and on it are some outstanding etchings made and filled in silver grey colour. The black contrast with the silver grey etchings make the piece truly a work of art. Decorations apart, these forms are meant for daily use, the decorations simply add to the beauty of the pottery.

It is also colloquially known as Bidri Work. Bidri work, from Andhra Pradesh, is a craft tradition done on specialised metal pots using silver wires. This technique draws inspiration from Bidri craft. Like several other crafts, with a lack of patrons, the craft had begun to dwindle; it is now being revived and rejuvenated. There has been a concerted effort by dedicated individuals, groups and society to provide a forum for design and marketing intervention for the craft to take on the onslaught of competition. The focus is to revive it for day to day use, so that consumption increases and there is a growing demand.

The pottery of Nizamabad has a unique place. Kamaladevi Chattopadyay, the Goddess of Indian Handicrafts says in her book Handicrafts of India, "A special kind of earthenware peculiar to Nizamabad, Azamgarh district of UP is distinguished by its dark lustrous body."

My tryst with the potters and their modernistic forms came about during an exhibition organised by India International Centre, New Delhi, in collaboration with Indian Trust for Rural Heritage & Development. Present were craftsmen who were awardees Ram Jatan Ram Prajapati, Mrs Pushpa Devi and Sohit Kumar Prajapati. The first two are a husband and wife duo who have been given National and State awards. Their son has also recently received the State Award. Ram Jatan Ram Prajapati received the National Award for Master Craftsman from the Government of India in 2004.

Like all crafts, there are no available records as to its origins. It is usually said that the craft is more than 500 years old. It is a part of the tradition of Azamgarh. How it came to be done here is anybody's guess? An interesting portion in the book Handmade in India, edited by Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan is, "According to historical accounts the art of black pottery came from Gujarat. The ancestors of the potters had accompanied Abdul Farah Nizamabadi to the village during the reign of Emperor Alamgarh, 400 years ago." It is possible that given the patronage of the Emperor, the craft flourished and complicated pieces were made. Ram Jatan Ram Prajapati adds, "In 1905, there is a certificate for good work given by the British for a product made from Azamgarh using the Naqqashi technique. It was hugely popular then." The accent then was on making decorative pieces. So a lot of wall hangings, plaques, fruit bowls, jars, flower pots were made, even dinner sets and tea sets were the order of the day.

Ram Jatan tells me, "today there are around 80 homes which are involved in pottery, of which about eight to 10 do fancy work or that for [pottery] decorative purposes. Only three homes are doing the much coveted Naqqashi pottery--black pottery of Nizamabad." Ram Jatan Ram Prajapati has, like most potters in India, been born into the craft. He does not remember when he learnt it or how long he has been doing it. He adds in a matter of fact manner, "in India, pottery making is a family tradition and art. Every member of the family is involved in one operation or the other. So everyone in my family is adept at making it. It is not something learnt out of the way but inborn." Another reason for it to become a family tradition is that the bread and butter comes from it. Most potters make pieces and sell it in volumes. They also make one of a kind pieces, but the sale or the breadwinner are from the bulk orders made. So for bulk orders the value that is being fired together in the kiln could be around $3000 USD or so. It is local everyday-use pottery that is made in such volumes. The coveted Nizamabad engraved pottery today is made exclusively on orders. Earlier craftsmen would stock these products for retail or wholesale. The reason for not doing it is the raw materials used for the engraving or etching has become prohibitively expensive. Para or mercury is $200 USD a kilogram while ranga or zinc is $100 USD a kilogram. Given these prohibitive costs, it is impossible to keep ready stocks for sale. Earlier the costs were not prohibitive so they used to keep stocks for sale. Also breakability is another aspect that needs to be taken care of.


The method of making as Ram Jatan rattles off with veritable ease saying, "come to Azamgarh and you can view it first hand." I am not so sure, but try to follow the process. I have seen the pots being made locally by another Azamgarh potter in Delhi. The mud for the pots is brought from ponds. The availability of good quality mud is again a problem. Now it is obtained from villages that are deeper inside. Given the pressures of population, this is proving to be a problem. Most of the potters can recognise good quality mud just by looking at it.

The mud is literally stored in the home for a year as is the kanda or cow dung used for baking. The mud is soaked in water and in a chakki or a stone grinder turned to make it fine. This is then stored inside the house for a day. The dry mud is powdered. It is sieved several times

The process of production is described in great detail by Kamaladevi Chattopadyay in her book Handicrafts of India, "The sheen is obtained by dipping it into a solution of clay, vegetable matter, dried, then rubbed with a vegetable oil and fired. The vegetable matter evidently gives out a dark oxide to get that lustrous effect, on which, scintillating silvery ornamentation is done by incising the pattern on the surface after baking and rubbing in mercury and tin. The use of this type of wares is however limited, for as the clay is fired at low temperature, it becomes brittle and cannot hold any liquid." Ram Prajapati, however, says, "Earlier we used to make dinner sets, tea sets all of which were coveted and sold immediately. Then, people began to tell us that the mercury and zinc used in the decorative naqqashi was poisonous and so we stopped making products that could be put to day to day use. So only decorative pieces are made, once upon a time these products were used for day to day use but given the doubts verify if these claims are right or not."

The area specialises in making pots of both red and stone burnished pottery as well as the traditional black pottery. The mud is hand pounded in a chakki or a hand grinder. Since it is hand pounded it is not fine and over the use of the metals, it has been stopped. No one has bothered to it has to be sieved several times to get a fine quality. This ensures that the mud does not have any stones or lumps and is soft to work with. The mud is then kneaded with water. Approximately 40 percent of water is added to the mix. It is then kneaded by hand to form a dough. The dough is then ready to be shaped on the wheel. Most potters work with wheels that turn by the hand. Electric wheels are also used. The object is shaped on the wheel and removed using a piece of thread. It is now dried in the sun. The clay hardens. It is again turned on the wheel, smoothed using a cutter, burnished stone and a few other implements. Most of the implements used are quite basic. This makes the object extremely smooth. Now an old piece of pure cotton cloth is taken out and the piece is rubbed with it. It now gets a sheen and looks and feels almost silken. It is further dried. After this the objects are dipped in an inherent solution. The solution is made using a local peeli mithi or yellow mud which is similar to fueller's earth. To the solution apart from the peeli mithi, proportions of mango bark, natural leaves and caustic soda are added. The pots are dipped into this solution and again dried in the sun. Once dried, the piece is again rubbed with a cotton cloth and then with application of mustard seed oil. Both of these contribute to giving the pot an appealing natural colour with a high sheen. The pot at this stage resembles a warm earthy coloured creation almost as if it were made of wood or some other material akin to it.

After this starts the process of etching or engraving images on it. A sharp tool is commonly used for engraving on the pot. This is commonly referred to as naqqashi. The designs used vary but mostly are done freehand sans any tracing. The potter is adept at drawing and engraves on the pot with immaculate ease.

The pot is now ready to be baked in the kiln. The baking is carried out in a woodfired kiln, along with wood, cow dung and saw dust are also added. It is baked at 750[degrees]C for six to eight hours time. It is the baking that gives the pot its black colour. The pieces to be baked are stacked in an earthen pot and filled with wooden pieces, cow dung and saw dust in the empty spaces. The mouth of the pot is then sealed. This is then lowered into the woodfired kiln and allowed to bake. Since the baking is done in a closed pot, it is fired at a low temperature. When the baking starts, the combustibles give out smoke which is trapped inside the earthen pot in which it is baked. This smoke imparts a jet black colour to the objects inside. This is taken out, cooled and then the inlay work is started. A mixture of glass, zinc and mercury (used by goldsmiths) is taken and mixed. This is filled by hand and rubbed with the nail into the etchings made earlier. The zinc settles in the thin openings. The etchings are permanent and it does not lose shine with the passing away of time. The making of an object takes three to five days, irrespective of the number of pieces to be made. Double firing in an open kiln and a closed kiln is done for dishes and tea sets used as crockery.

In their book, Handmade in India, edited by Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, The Potters of Nizamabad make unique thrown black pottery incised with silver motifs that resemble the metal bidri ware of Hyderabad. The black colour of the pottery is the outcome of a clay slip and reduction firing. The kabiz (clay slip) contains, among other things, mango bark, bamboo leaves and adusath leaves, all of which carbonise in the firing. Thrown pots are dried and smoothed with ghont, a quartz river stone. Engraving is done freehand by the women with a paste of mercury, lead and zinc. The motifs are derived from nature. Firing is done in an open kiln by placing dung cakes between the wares and covering the heap with straw and mud.


The naqqashi done on the pottery is known by different names. There are more than 50 designs and many more are made. There are jhoomar, bel, paurani, laung, papal and more.

The biggest bane or problem that Ram Jatan faces today is the prohibitive costs of raw material, which make it difficult for him to stock the bidri or inlay kind of pottery. As he says, "I make it on order only. Earlier each of our houses used to have umpteen number of pieces stocked." There is plenty of demand especially in the cities but the problem is carting the wares without breakage. Also with living in the city becoming expensive, direct marketing has become more expensive. With little support from the Government with respect to marketing or affordable place of stay, the only option has been to make these wares on demand only. Ram Jatan adds, "earlier we used to give it to Government run emporiums. Now they only stock on a consignment basis which leaves the potters no other option but to either rely on their own marketing or on orders."

The cry is the same, the Government can resurrect the craft if it so desires. All that the craftsmen want is a better marketing opportunity, a blissful state where they only produce and the marketing is taken care of by trained professionals.

Chitra Balasubramaniam is a Delhi based freelance journalist.
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Author:Balasubramaniam, Chitra
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2014
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