Saturday, May 4, 2002

Kumhaar art down the ages
Rajbala Phaugat

Udey of Pakasma village making a hukkah on the wheel
Udey of Pakasma village making a hukkah on the wheel

THERE was a time when in each village of Haryana, there were a couple of families of potters. Whenever the villagers needed pots, they usually fetched them from these potters. In a village community, depending upon the size of the settlement, there could be one or two or more than a dozen potter families. Throughout the year, except for the rainy season, these artisans remained busy making clay pots. In fact, the work relating to pottery required the contribution of every family member. Children from the age of 12 onwards were inducted into this profession and they remained active in this field till they reached the age of 65 or more.

The Kumhaars were paid for their services and articles in kind by the farming community. The farmers paid them twice annually at the time of the harvest for a fixed number of pots that the Kumhaars were supposed to supply them with. With banias and other communities living in the village, the Kumhaars made cash transactions.

The Kumhaars settled within the village precincts. The owners of large estates offered them big plots of land where they could settle down and they were given open land outside the village settlement from where they could fetch material for making pots and other objects of art. Kumhaars preferred to settle in those village estates which were fairly large and offered an inexhaustible supply of clay. In large village estates in Haryana I could locate up to 800 Kumhaar families which had been living there for centuries.


The owners of village estates invariably allocated land to them either to the north or south of the village estate so that when the Kumhaars operated their kilns, the smoke would not enter the homes of villagers. It took three to four days for the pots placed in the kiln to get ready. Thereafter the kiln was allowed to cool slowly by itself. The exact quantity of fuel to be placed in the open kiln was known to the Kumhaars and this art was handed down from one generation to the next. Nowadays, the Kumhaars use closed mud-brick kilns or electric furnaces. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has given much help to the Kumhaar community and made them adopt the techniques prepared by them.

In the days goneby when every village had a forest area, the Kumhaars collected fuel for their kiln from there. They also collected from the village streets burnable refuge, available in the form of leavings of sugarcane in the winter months. This was supplemented with cowdung cakes bought from farmers.

A lot has been said and written about the socio-economic status of Kumhaars in ancient texts. Yet more information was collecte d by British district officers who compiled it in District Gazetteers. The first ever census in the Punjab province was carried out in 1868 in which information about caste and religion was also compiled. The census report of 1891 carried under the overall supervision of E.D. Meclagan reveals that Pindi and Peshawar Kumhaars were Kalaals. The other subcastes which were included in the Kumhaar community were Gumiar, Ghumiar, Ghumar, Khumar, Koobhar and Kuhaar. Later Pajawagar, Gilger, Gilsaaj and Gilkar were also put under the head Kumhaar. The census report of 1912 records that Kumhaars belonged to the Sikh community also. A Kumhaar was enlisted for the first time as a Jain in this report.

During my numerous travels across the Haryana countryside I could see vestiges of the old Kumhaar art. These artisans were engaged as brick-makers, designers of wells and havelis and as painters who decorated the walls with motifs and frescoes. They even prepared images of Hindu gods and revered animals in terracotta. Almost all old village estates and towns of Haryana bear traces of the artwork done by Kumhaars. In Dujana village near Jhajjar district headquarters, which was once a capital of a state held by the Nawabs, there is Dhauli Masjid. On its premises stands a magnificent building which ran a madrasa. The wall of this building was decorated in a unique style with terracotta filigree. The blocks of the filigree were made of clay. In other towns, the window and terrace jalees were created in the same manner but in different styles. For creating new designs, Kumhaars used to take assistance of carpenters for making engraved wooden blocks. The designs of the blocks were preserved as trade secrets. The other way to create new designs was to first make drawings on papers or on a bed of sand and then they were memorised. The proof of their ancient skills exists in the museum in the Department of History in Maharishi Dayanand University where a couple of Makara structures done in terracotta are kept. These fine terracotta pieces were excavated from the Khokrakot mound adjacent to Rohtak. The discovery of these Makaras suggests that the Yodheyas who were living in the city 1100 years ago built a temple of Goddess Ganga there. The Kumhaars of the medieval period were adept at making fairly large pots and a number of them were recovered by archaeologists from Mohanbari near Jhansuan Kalan, Chandi village near Rohtak, Khokrakot near Asthal Bohar Math and several other mounds in Haryana. The storage capacity of these large terracotta vessels is up to 5 quintal. In those days the local farmers used to store large quantities of grain in them, thus protecting it from moisture and termites. A large number of painted pottery was also excavated from these sites.

In Farmana Khas village of Meham Chaubisi there is a fortress like well. This well, known as Banion walah kuan, was constructed by Kumhaar masons brought from Bhiwani town. I was amazed to see the workmanship and durability of this structure built over a hundred years ago. Bhiwani town still has a large number of Kumhaars who do excellent masonry work and are known as Chesaras.

In 1864 AD an exhibition displaying artefacts from India was held at London. In it objects created by Kumhaars of Jhajjar were also exhibited. The article that attracted the attention of visitors was a surahi from Jhajjar. The District Gazetteer of Rohtak (1910) contains a description of the event. It says the Kumhaars of Jhajjar employed special techniques to create surahis. The clay was obtained from the dry bed of a local pond. It was processed and mixed with mica sand brought from Mehrauli, near Delhi, and acacia gum before an object was created. In fact every village had a few master potters. It is well known that the potters of Pakasma village near Rohtak had a reputation for making durable vessels. Among them the names of Udey and Pooran can be counted with respect. Pooran Kumhaar made chillums for hukkah. It is said that when someone called on him and asked for a new chillum, he would just throw the chillum at him. The visitor, to his amazement, would find the chillum intact. Pooran no longer works now and his offspring have not taken to the family profession.

Kumhaars of Haryana were also reputed for making lakhauri bricks, which were small in size. Often the Kumhaars obtained clay for making bricks from the dry beds of village ponds or community lands known as pajawagars. They would make not less than one lakh bricks. The number could go up to five lakhs. The bricks were called lakhauri because their number was always in lakhs; and the open kiln was called pajawa (from the term pajawagars). From reputed centres the bricks were exported to other villages and cities. Just 60 years ago, brick- making was a large scale activity at Dujana, Dighal, Meham, Chhara, Barwa, Kalayat, Kaithal, Gohana, Bhiwani, Jhajjar, Fatehpur-Poondri, Asandh, Farrukhnagar, Gurgaon, Narnaul, Hansi, Rewari and Rohtak.

Kumhaars performed a number of other tasks also. During chaumasa, the rainy season, they engaged themselves in weaving durries and saleetas. Alas these items of everyday use in rural households are no more created by this community since commercial houses have taken over this activity. Besides these objects, Kumhaars supplied at least 16 new vessels to a farmer at the time of his son or daughterís marriage. In return, as per tradition, the Kumhaar would receive from the farmer 5 to 15 ser of grain at each harvesting season. Moreover, whenever the Kumhaar had a wedding ceremony at his home, he would receive 8 annas to one rupee for his sonís wedding and from one to four rupees for the wedding of his daughter. But nowadays these traditions are no more in practise. In spite of societal changes in the village communities, the relationship between the Kumhaars and the other castes have not deteriorated. It is still a visual treat to see the village Kumhaar perform on his wheel and create beautiful pots of various shapes and sizes.