A Dark Side to Ceramics

Jane Perryman photo

A well-worn book on my shelves is Jane Perryman’s masterpiece Traditional Pottery of India published twelve years ago. She begins by telling us that India has a million potters, more than any other nation, and then goes on to describe their work in great detail, region by region. Her photos are exquisite. I am entranced with the enormous clay horses, the mud stoves, the wonderful thrown vessels, the polished black pots, the intricately decorated mud walls —all of it. Highly skilled potters have passed their methods of making down for generations. Today, there is competition from cheap, lightweight plastic and metal, and one wonders how much longer there will be a demand for handmade pots. I hope for a long time.

Perryman makes it clear that the potter’s life is not an easy one. The work is physically demanding and it does not bring in much money. Because of their smoky kilns, potters are relegated to the outskirts of towns and looked down upon. Still, what they produce are objects of great beauty. Here in the US, the pieces would be the pride of any gallery.

I was struck, then, by Sonia Faliero’s piece in the New York Times last Sunday, For India’s Children, Philanthropy Isn’t Enough. She tells the story of Meena Devi, a ten-year old girl who is head of her household. Her mother starved to death three years ago, and with her, Devi’s youngest sibling. Her father had died some years before, plunging the family in to dire circumstances. Today, the only adult in Devi’s life is an aunt who is herself besieged with poverty with four kids of her own to feed. Devi cooks and cleans for a brother who is a year older. Her aunt sent another brother, who is fourteen to a distant brick factory to work.

The whole story is heart breaking. When one of Faleiro’s readers offered to send money to support the children, the aunt refused. Worse, Meena will likely end up being trafficked. And that brick factory turns out to be a very bad place, heavily dependent on child labor. One boy told UNICEF, “I usually carry 10 bricks each weighing around four kgs (8.8 pounds) and cover a distance of about 200 meters…I do 15 to 20 such rounds every day. ” And though it is illegal, there are brick factories in India that rely on bonded laborers; slaves, whose every move is controlled by the factory owners, with reports of beatings and horrid, windowless living conditions.

“The low-caste residents of Meena’s village,” Faleiro writes, “work the land of their upper-caste neighbors, who pay them in grain. To earn cash, entire families find supplemental work in on of the state’s many brick kilns, but they don’t make enough to feed themselves.”

Both UNICEF and the Indian government are taking steps to help the children who work long hot hours day after day carrying bricks and brick molds, to regain a bit of their childhood, and most important an education. But I wonder if there is something the ceramic community can do?  Fired clay bricks are exquisitely useful and wonderfully attractive to behold. How terrible that they would be produced on the backs of children.

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