The black clay of Manipur

Have you ever wondered while drinking your morning cup of tea, where the teacup came from, or who made it?
India’s’ magnificent Manipur in the north east of the country, is affectionately known as the ‘Switzerland of India’ for a good reason. When you set foot in this beautiful land, surrounded by serene mountain landscapes, exotic wildlife and warmhearted locals, you will realize you have landed in a place rich in culture and home to the traditional craft of Black Clay Pottery, practiced by the Thankul Naga tribes for many centuries.
Presley and her sister artisans have been fiercely trying to protect and continue this age old tradition from completely disappearing in today world of mass mechanized production and lack of opportunities. Currently only about 250 homes in the district of Ukhrul are known for preserving this craft and even less are currently practicing it on a daily basis.
In mid-2016 after working with her for more than a year, I felt honored to introduce this beautiful handcrafted pottery from these mountainous regions to contemporary Chicago., an online store, aims to preserve the pottery skills unique to artisan communities of Manipur which acts as a platform, enabling craftspeople to connect with global buyers. Though the pottery is purely functional and mainly used for cooking and storing food and grains, on you will find a line of tantalizing teaware, as a perfect way to introduce these functional and simple pottery to the Western world and the keep the magic of Manipur alive on the global art and home décor scene.
Recently in December, to show my commitment, I set out to visit the artisans in their villages. Presley and her family were shocked as no one had ever made the effort to get to know them before and learned first hand the many social, political and economic hurdles these families face daily.
Despite the fact that it has been more than 67 years since Manipur merged with India, living conditions and development in Manipur is still far behind the other states. Since early November 2016, there has been an indefinite economic blockade in the state’s national highways disrupting and stopping the transportation of essential commodities to the hills. The demonetization process the country is experiencing has added fuel to the fire to an already volatile political environment of unrest and curfews with newspapers reporting deaths and violence frequently.
Women artisans have to not only deal with the political instability of the land but also prove to the community their right to be respected. The responsibility of the home including collecting water, wood or working on the farm, leaves little time to generate any additional income for the family let alone spark an interest in continuing a craft which holds little hope for survival or interest from the outside world.
It takes no less than 28 hours by plane to get to the capital city of Imphal, from Chicago and another five-hour jeep ride, traversing 85km at an altitude of about 3000 ft to reach Ukhrul, which is the main town in the district. The ongoing journey of an additional 35kms to reach the home of Presley took two hours, using a narrow mud road connecting Ukhrul town to the small villages of Nungbi Khullen, Longpi, Lonpi Kajui.
The clay used in making the pottery is locally sourced from the mountainous region for the Serpentite rock and weathered rock from the farms and fields, which are mixed together. They are pounded and broken without any mechanized tools mostly using wooden and bamboo pounding vessels and mixed with water. The clay is then rolled by hand into desired shapes using moulds and flat padding tools. No potters wheel is used to shape the pottery which are then baked in a traditional kiln, mostly in the open, which results in smoke stains to add to the beauty and uniqueness to the black pottery. On cooling, the pieces are polished with local leaves called machee, which provides the luster to its surface. The pottery is not glazed or re-fired and over time, the pottery will season, absorbing the natural oils from the food.
Presley and her family are some of the warmest people you will ever meet. Not only did they welcome me into their home, but they also broke bread with me, a tradition and honor reserved for only a few.
Terra Klay is built on the idea that every product has a story and if you listen closely enough, it will tell you about the hands that crafted it and connect you to a timeless tradition. After experiencing the magic of Manipur, I feel more connected with my artisan sisters and even more committed to give these women a chance to succeed against all odds and empower them to be entrepreneurs, alive with hope for a better tomorrow.