My Kith and Kiln

After four in the evening, you wonder how it is that the dogs sleep so serenely in Kumbharwada, Dharavi. Smoke, slowly swirling and darkly stinging, engulfs the place as the potter community set fire to their kilns. People move into the interior of their houses, shops pull down tarpaulin curtains and ends of sarees become futile gas masks. It looks dismal but it is the smell of livelihood in the air.

Ashwin Solanki, a potter, makes little terracotta pots for a dairy farm in Marine Lines. He makes 300 of these everyday and fires them in the evening. A typical firing involves a stacking of the following: a metal sheet in the base, a crowd of the pots, cotton, mill waste and leather waste. The fuel used is highly toxic as the mill waste is soaked in oil and chemicals. After a firing, Ashwin says he is so nauseated by the fumes that he can hardly have dinner and simply sleeps it off.

Daksha, his relative, has been dealing with an affected throat for the past three months. Her larynx burns and she has developed a husky voice. She has visited a doctor once but medicines have not helped due to the constant exposure to the fumes in the environment. And this is not the first time this has happened to her. She now sounds a lot like Rani Mukherjee, but misses her own voice.

Longevity is affected among the kumbhars, what with many of them developing tuberculosis, cancer and asthma. Spells of cough and cold are a common affair here. There is local talk of a pregnant woman who complained to the police about the fumes affecting her, but the police allegedly supported the potters. While firing, the men are not provided with any masks. Malaria, on the other hand, is not a threat here as the smoke clears the air of the diminutive mosquito. During the monsoon, however, it is a different story.

The current method of firing followed by the kumbhars is one they have followed for generations. They are aware of the non-hazardous gas kilns but are slow to switch over. The earthen kilns or bhattis are lethal but they are also the most efficient method of firing. Products are fired in bulk whereas in a gas kiln fewer pieces can be loaded. 10 kgs of industrial waste cost Rs. 60 whereas a commercial gas cylinder costs Rs. 1300. Domestic gas cylinders, which cost Rs. 400 apiece, are not permitted for commercial use. The ratios are self-revelatory for the potters’ fidelity to traditional kilns. No smoke gets into their eyes.

While cleaner fuel could be a solution, Ashwin knows that a government subsidy on commercial gas cylinders is the key. This could relieve the toxicity levels of the place by encouraging the potters to adopt gas kilns. This means that primarily gas kilns will have to be introduced into their process but they are financially thwarted to do so.

When Ashwin looks at his two year old niece, he worries about the future. He says that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to leave this line of business. The little girl plays around in the street and rubs her eyes red as evening sets. Till the dawn of better provisions and subsidies, a potter dreams on.

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7 responses to “My Kith and Kiln

  1. This was a wonderfully written piece. It was almost as I could feel like the pace. Your piece has now motivated me to head out in order to explore this place and blend with the local culture. Bombay can offer such interesting angles na just when you think you know it all.

    • Dear Akshay, thank you! Yes, Kumbharwada is a great place to explore. Mumbai has so many layers and subtexts! The Dekha Undekha project works with the potters there to help discuss their health issues through ceramics. You can be updated by joining our facebook page.

  2. please give complete details of firing expanses in traditional kiln firing where oil rags and bhusi (cotton dust ) is used as a fuel.Rs. 10 per kg. and how many kilos they use per firing? how much bhushi bags? plus to fire the kilns they appoint one or two persons? there daily veges? and breakage during firing and the most hazards pollution at what cost? even without subsidy gas firing works out economical. I can say that because I have done gas fired kiln for them and one family is using it even today for there daly production which gives them profit.otherwise they will not use it. it is a matter of helping the potters to setup the kilns because they find it expansive to install the kiln. I am sure once they get the kiln they will start using it even if the cost of firing is little higher they will do it because there next generation will not suffer the pollution.and in one kiln they fire at list two to four thousand articles and the extra cost will get divided so please find out exactly how many percent extra it works out and if you need any help for setting up the gas kiln I am willing to do. already through yuva I have done it. Just don’t blame the gas cost.
    Sandeep Manchekar.

    • Dear Sandeep,

      The article mentions towards the end that setting up the kilns and the cost of cylinders are expensive. Both.

      It is great that you want to help. The current project that we are on is to spread awareness and a health advocacy programme.

      If you wish to contribute, it is best that you contact the Prajapati Samaj at Kumbharwada directly.

      Thank you for taking an active interest in their lives.

      • Hi
        Yes I am in touch with prajapati sangh people.
        at the same time creating awareness about gas kill is very important.
        as i said setting up the kiln is one time expanse and if you put the calculations on paper about present method of firing and gas firing then you will understand that the firing cost even with commercial cylinder is not very high. by understand this if you and your teem gets convinced then you can make them understand the potters of kumbhar wada that against the health hazard that added cost is much cheaper. This is also a part of health awareness and with sneha”s networking and on line platform spreading the message is more faster. I can give you power point presentation about the comparative firing cost which may help you understand what I want to say. I as an individual has a limitations since I received the mail and after reading the writeup on kiln problem I thought I can share what I know about the gas kiln. it not the cost it the cause HEALTH is IMP.
        all the best.
        regards

  3. for gas fired kiln at kumbhar wada please let me know if you need any help it is very IMP they should start using gas kiln it is not expansive than there life. and the added cost they should demand from market.

  4. Gas kilns would certainly alleviate a great deal of the pollution caused by the inefficient burning of industrial rag waste, which in itself possibly contains a number of toxins. (I am unaware of whether any public/occupational health surveys have been carried out amongst the potters to determine their exposure to pollution and its impact). That Kumbharwada lies adjacent to Sion Hospital is perhaps also of concern.

    An up-gradation of firing technology, could lead to the development of new products to meet the needs of a changing market. The potters of Kumbharwada have real skills and talent, which could soon be lost if they are unable to adapt to the changing economic and cultural environment.

    There is a real potential to allow Kumbharwada to develop into a model for traditional potters across the country (on a recent visit to Puddukottai district, I find that traditional Aiyanar horse sculptors who also made terra cotta pots are now being forced to make cement pots as the market and appreciation for their very real hand skills is shrinking.)

    Already, in Kumbharwada where families have adopted gas kilns and the development of new products, a new prosperity is setting in.

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