What do this AUD researcher, storyteller and ghatam player have in common? Stories about pots and potters  

Sangeeta Jawla has been researching pottery since 2017. She recently collaborated with storyteller Vikram Sridhar and ghatam player Sumana Chandrashekar to tell the world stories of Indian potters
Sangeeta, Sumana and Vikram
Sangeeta, Sumana and Vikram

Over a ten-minute-long phone call on a Tuesday afternoon, Vikram Sridhar told us the story Gandharva Sen is Dead, a popular Bengali folktale. The story is about a poor woman potter who started crying out loud, "Gandharva Sen is dead". This news spread like wildfire and, in no time, everyone in the village and the neighbouring villages too started sharing the news of the death of a certain Gandharva Sen. Some believed that he was a scholar, others thought him to be a king. However, at the end, it was revealed that Gandharva Sen was the name of the woman's donkey and laughter erupted across the land.

The popular version of this old Indian tale ends here. But accomplished storyteller Vikram tells us the original version of this story, which originated among the potter community of Jharkhand. "It ends with the potters wondering how somebody could laugh at the loss of a donkey, which is an important animal for them," says Vikram, explaining how popular narratives, mostly by the upper castes, ridicule the lower castes. "We usually have a tendency to laugh at a donkey or call someone a donkey as an insult. But if you travel across India, you will understand the importance of a donkey, especially in the potter community as well as for craftsmen and dhobis," he says.

On January 26, Vikram performed a series of stories, collected from across India, around the pot and the potter, at an event hosted in Bengaluru by the NGO Sunaadam Trust. All of these tales were documented by Sangeeta Jawla, an Ambedkar University Delhi PhD scholar who's been researching pottery and the potter community for three years now. "As part of my PhD thesis, I've been travelling across the country, talking to potters. I started in Haryana and travelled to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Maharashtra and Delhi. I was interested to know why many of them gave up pottery and migrated to the cities," says Sangeeta. Interestingly, she tells us that two generations ago, her ancestors too were potters. However, she never saw anyone from her or her father's generation touch the clay. This triggered an interest in her to find out more about the community. In fact, the first person she spoke to was her grandfather's brother, who is her only relative still dabbling in pottery today.

"Poverty was a major reason behind the shift. As the years passed, the potters ended up spending a lot of money to buy and transport clay. But they made almost no profit," she says. She also explored more on the community and ended up discovering a lot of compelling stories, folklore, idioms and jokes around the community. One of those was the Gandharva Sen story. There was another story about a potter's donkey that wanted to marry a princess. Yet another one was about a potter who tied a diamond around his donkey's neck. "I started observing how potters are often mocked in the popular narratives of these stories. However, the original versions are quite different. So, we wanted to tell people the potters' version," says Sangeeta.

Sangeeta was subsequently introduced to Vikram by ghatam player Sumana Chandrashekar. The ghatam is also a type of pot used as a musical instrument. "I had a word with Sumana who has been researching the ghatam and its origins. I became interested in her project because there's music involved," says Sangeeta. "I could see the potters' happiness and how authoritative they felt when the original versions of these stories were narrated. I want more people to know these stories and hear them from different perspectives. This will obviously help uplift the community's social status," she concludes.

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