Omkar Pathak explores the potter community nestled in the heart of Mumbai
Nestled in the heart of Mumbai is Dharavi, the third largest slum in the world. With a staggering population of around a million people living in 550 acres of land, Dharavi is home to hundreds of businesses and small-scale industries. Tucked in the center of it all is Kumbharwada, a massive locality that’s home to over 150 families that, even to this day, make their livelihood through pottery making. Established between 1935 and 1940, this potter community is comprised of residents who migrated from places like Saurashtra and Kutch in western India; some of the families that work here today are the fifth or sixth generation of these migrants.
I made my way through the winding lanes of Kumbharwad one morning, and with each turn I took, the road seemed to get narrower. Amidst the morning sunlight peeking in through thatched roofs, the banter of women conversing outside of their homes, the soapy water flowing around my ankles, the energy of excited kids rushing off to school, and the honking of bicycles coming every which way, I could see potters outside of their houses, diligently working with mud and clay as they worked towards their daily quotas.
“I started a little early today, at around seven in the morning, because I want to attend a wedding happening here in the evening,” says Ismail, a potter who lives with his wife and 6-year-old son here. Ismail has been involved in this line of work ever since he was a kid. His father was also a potter but passed away while Ismail was young, leaving the responsibility of maintaining the craft and providing for the family up to him. He tells me that he usually prefers making oil lamps because he thinks he can make more oil lamps in an hour than he would other items.
The process of pottery making in Kumbharwada begins with soil being brought in from the outskirts of Mumbai, which is then mixed and turned into clay. Pots are then molded by hand and left to dry in the sun. Once dried, they’re transferred into a furnace to be baked. Once that’s done, the pots are ready for the markets. It’s a creation cycle that never stops here; every family is focused and equally doing their part to keep the cycle going. “I’ve made all kinds of items in my time here in Kumbharwaada, like oil lamps, flower pots, water pots, dessert cups, and more,” says Jeetu Chitroda, one of the seasoned potters of the community. “This is our daily life. We earn our living here. We’ve been here all our lives. We were kids here at one time, and now, we’re lucky enough to see our own kids playing in the very same alleys that we grew up in.”
However, the families here are adapting to the changing times, with some transitioning into a more contemporary lifestyle. Nowadays, it’s normal to see a family here with the father and mother staying in the community to keep the pottery business going while their son leaves in pursuit of a different career. Beyond the preservation of traditions and culture, one of the most interesting aspects of the community is seeing how the population is divided into Hindus and Muslims, all of whom live together in harmony. After observing their lifestyle and adaptive nature, I’ve come to see that Kumbharwaada isn’t simply a potter’s hub wedged in the largest metropolitan in the country. Instead, I now see it as a symbol of a successful rural ideology that’s breathing and injecting life in a rapidly changing urban landscape.