The old cracked clay oven, fired by slabs of burning wood, crackled on Friday as the last batch of 10,000 deyas were put to bake at the back of Radika’s Pottery Shop at Edinburgh, Chaguanas.
With over 200,000 deyas already made in the leadup to Divali, which will be celebrated nationwide on Tuesday, fourth generation potter Andy Benny said he was hoping that communities in Central Trinidad would celebrate Divali with the usual grandeur despite the recent flood devastation.
Benny said his factory started making deyas six months ago and the last batch was due to come out of the oven yesterday after 20 hours of firing. Because of the weather, Benny said it was not feasible to make any more deyas because they would not dry in time for Divali.
In an interview with the Sunday Guardian, Benny said the art of traditional pottery making is dying. He said labour shortage is a major problem. Skilled potters are no longer passing down their skills to the young generation because pottery is not seen as a profitable, feasible work of art, he noted.
“This year we lost one of our skilled masters, Deonarine Ramcharan, who got knocked down by the traffic light and died,” Benny said.
He explained that alcohol addiction was also killing skilled potters.
“Puncheon is a problem. We can only get them to work in the first half of the day. The second half they go missing,” Benny said.
He added that his great maternal grandfather, Seecharan, was one of two brothers who came from India with the pottery skills. Seecharan stayed in Chaguanas, while his brother Goolcharan set up shop in Rio Claro. Their pottery skills were passed down and his mother, Radika Benny, later established a pottery shop which became a hallmark in Chase Village.
Benny said he was willing to teach pottery to the youths. He admitted that many of his relatives now had automated pottery shops, but said nothing was as rewarding and valuable as seeing pottery done the traditional way.
“There are purists who want the pots created by hand. All of our pots sell but we have no space to expand,” he said.
He added that several years ago their MP, Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, made representation for them to get a piece of land to expand. However, that fell through.
Benny said they now had a major problem because there was little demand for the already over 150,000 deyas they had produced before the floods hit. He said many people who were hit by the flooding had been scaling down their Divali celebrations and the deyas and other pottery used at this time were not in high demand. A wooden house filled to the brim with deyas stood near to the potter’s wheel while another lot was filled with truckloads of yellow sapatay clay during the Sunday Guardian’s visit.
A tour of the factory was like a step back in time with mounds of pots and vases at various stages of completion.
Giving an overview of the pottery making process, Benny said they were now able to make pottery much quicker because of the pugmill which kneads the clay.
“I hate when they call it mud. It is not mud. It is a special clay which we get three or four feet underground where there are no impurities like nail, bottle, grass or roots. I bring in six truckloads every six months because we do pottery right through the year,” Benny said.
He added that long ago, potters had to dance in the mud to take out the impurities.
“That was not fun. It was hard work. When we take the clay out of the pugmill we put it on a rolling board where we manually roll it into a block,” Benny said.
This block of mud is then put on a potter’s wheel made with old car parts, drive belts, pulleys and motors. There are three potter’s wheels in Radika’s factory and Benny said they create urns, vases, kalsas, deyas and goblets.
His sister Mona Mahamoody and cousin Annette Benny fashion intricate designs on the creations which are then sold outside in a tent.
The last master potter, Bassant Charran, said he was proud of his craft.
“This is what I love. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was small. I don’t know any other work,” Charran said.
He also called on the Government to provide a parcel of land so that they can expand their operations and teach the young generation the skills of pottery.
“We should not wait to let this process die. It is something that we have to treasure. We are probably the last set of potters who do pots and deyas the traditional way and it is something that must be preserved,” Charran said.
Some pots are sold for $3 while intricate decorative ones are sold for $175. Goblets are sold for $30 while goblets with handles are sold at $50.
Anyone wanting pots can contact Benny at 665-4267 or 789-4089.