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A legacy still cherished, even as potters in Khurja shift to modern kilns to shape clay

The famed pottery industry in Khurja, Uttar Pradesh, has undergone significant modernisation over the years, transitioning from coal-fired kilns to more sustainable options such as natural gas, thereby improving energy-efficiency and reducing environmental impact. The gas-based furnaces ensure that the heat is equally distributed, producing better quality products and helping potters compete locally and globally. However, the transition has its own set of challenges as traditional potters cannot install the modern gas-based furnaces which are expensive and require large space. This comprehensive article is by Kundan Pandey

Fifty-year-old Sayeed Ahamed’s approach to shaping clay diverges from the conventional method employed by most traditional potters. Instead of relying on his hand’s motion to sculpt, he adopts a distinctive technique by positioning his right leg in a carefully carved hole under the ground. He kicks his leg underneath, which imparts motion to a lower wheel, which in turn drives the upper wheel, facilitating the shaping of clay placed atop it. This unique pottery technique, known as the kick-wheel technique, offers a notable advantage — both of his hands remain entirely free throughout the process. As a seasoned artisan from a long line of potters, Sayeed Ahamed takes pride and claims, “You will not find another kick wheel anywhere in Khurja.” Others gathered there, nod their heads in support.

While Ahamed’s approach appears innovative compared to traditional practices, it pales when one considers other extensive advancements that have revolutionised pottery production in Khurja, a city in the Bulandshahr District of Uttar Pradesh. Situated at approximately 85 kilometres away from Delhi, Khurja boasts a rich pottery history of at least 600 years. Its name, derived from the Urdu word kharija, meaning cancelled, reflects its history of swamps and scarce agricultural opportunities that led to waiving revenue from the town.

A kick-wheel pottery technique in which an artisan positions the right leg in a carefully carved hole in the ground. By moving his leg beneath, the
potter imparts motion to a lower wheel, which in turn drives the upper wheel, facilitating the shaping of clay placed atop it.

Artisans in Khurja, the sixth largest city in the National Capital Region (NCR), source clay from states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand. The clay undergoes a thorough process where it is initially mixed in ball mills and blungers (machines used in the pottery industry), where high rotations per minute (RPM) mixing ensures the fine blending of clays, before being filtered and refined in cut mills to attain the desired consistency. The clay thus prepared, is fed into a roller-head machine for shaping, says Md Arif Khan, a state-award winner for his work and a master artisan at Minhas Pottery, one of the 23 export-oriented pottery units in Khurja. These units export ceramics to various countries, including the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, and more. The major items of export include ceramic art ware, insulators, and scientific porcelain. Khurja’s pottery manufacturing has evolved into a hub of the ceramic industry, comprising over 494 units in the small-scale sector and standing as one of the largest white-ware clusters in India.

Following shaping, the pots undergo the firing process in the kilns. Sayeed Ahamed also utilises one of the small-scale units to fire his pots. Just behind his kick wheel at his residence in Khawesh Gyan in Khurja, there is a veranda full of racks where he keeps all the pots he has crafted. These pots get loaded on a cart and carried to one of such factories, where he rents a trolley or two depending on the number of pots he has managed to craft. Ahamed remarks, “These factories are at least two to three kilometres from my place. This task is challenging, fraught with the risk of pots being damaged during transport. We sometimes find ourselves waiting for several days just to secure a trolley. The costs are steep for small artisans; these factory owners charge us at least Rs 3,000, whereas for them it costs around Rs 1,200.” A majority of the artisans, around 80 per cent as per local claims, are dependent on these factories for the kilns.

Whispers of the past
The lone kick wheel of Khurja proudly stands in front of Ahamad’s veranda. Only a few feet away lie the remnants of a coal-fired down-draft (DD) kiln—a canopy-like structure with a tall chimney dating back to 1946, serving as a silent witness to a bygone era. This kiln was last fired in 1998. Khurja’s skyline is still dotted with similar chimneys, with some estimates suggesting that at one point in time, around 200 DD kilns were firing pots, each undergoing firing cycles lasting 120 hours, as per a book published by as reported by Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Central Glass & Ceramic Research Institute (CSIR-CGCRI). All the kilns were abandoned in the 1990s. A typical operation cycle from cool to cool was approximately five to seven days, accounting for a significant portion of energy costs.

While local residents reminisce fondly about those days, they acknowledge the limitations of a coal-based DD kiln. It was labour-intensive and had a serious impact on the local environment. With the industry’s evolution, coal-fired kilns gave way to oil-fired shuttle kilns and tunnel kilns. Introduced in Khurja’s pottery cluster in 1993-1994, shuttle kilns offered a more energy-efficient alternative with a shorter cycle duration- two to three days. The CGCRI book reveals that it needs a capital cost of Rs 7-12 lakhs. The transition away from coal-fired kilns was driven by significant environmental challenges, as highlighted in a report by the Department for International Development DFID, UK. The report, published in 2001, emphasised the need to address air pollution and fly ash disposal due to coal use. Consequently, the local industry shifted to diesel. However, the majority of factories embraced tyre oil as a cheaper alternative, confirm local artisans, adding that it tyre oil too has adverse impacts on the local environment.

A chimney that used to be part of a DD kiln which used coal as a fuel. All such kilns were closed in 1990s in Khurja.

Guljeet Singh Minhas, director, Minhas Pottery, underscores the inefficiency of DD Kilns, noting that 80 per cent of energy was wasted. He claims that the shift to diesel, a fuel used in the shuttle and tunnel kilns, brought about significant improvements, reducing energy wastage to just 20 per cent. The local industry then shifted to gas as a fuel. In Khurja, natural gas is available through piped natural gas from the private company, Adani Gas. The shift was prompted by a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order in 2016, residents say. However, according to Minhas, gas-based furnaces offer potters a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative. Some reports state that Khurja’s pottery cluster had earlier sought access to natural gas from a nearby pipeline for over a decade, before Adani Gas made its presence. The pipeline is located approximately 14 kilometres away from Khurja, near Shikarpur, but the access was denied due to scarcity and priority was given to other areas like Agra. The priority was provided to Agra because the monument was “deteriorating due to pollution caused by coal burning and other industrial gases which corrode the marble.”

Firing up the change
Minhas asserts that in his tunnel kiln, which operates on natural gas, there is zero energy wastage. Arif Khan, the ceramic designer at Minhas Pottery, elaborates on the entire process of firing pots at the organisation, emphasising that the sizes of kilns and trolleys may vary among different factories. After the pots are prepared, they undergo a thorough cleaning process to remove dust and impurities. They are then loaded onto trolleys with precision to maximise efficiency, ensuring each trolley carries the maximum number of clay utensils to the furnace. At the furnace, a pusher guides each trolley into the 90-metre-long tunnel kiln, which accommodates approximately 24 trolleys simultaneously. Each trolley, measuring 2.5 feet in length, 1.5 feet in width, and 2.25 feet in height, can hold about 15,000 pieces of ceramics and remains in the furnace for 24 hours.

Inside the kiln, the wares undergo three phases: preheating, firing, and cooling. In the preheating zone, temperatures range from 500 to 750 degrees celsius for 10 hours. Next, in the firing zone, temperatures reach 1,100 to 1,250 degrees Celsius for four hours, transforming the clay into durable ceramics. After firing, the wares enter the cooling zone, where temperatures range from 900 to 200 degrees Celsius for ten hours. Despite cooling, the pots remain hot enough to require careful handling. Khan says that innovation is happening at every level and indicates the trend of addition of silicon carbide in trolleys to make it more light and enhance efficiency.

Finally, after hours of intense heat and meticulous craftsmanship, the shining ceramics are ready to get transported to different parts of the world. Underlining the importance of quality, Minhas says that Indian potters were struggling in the international market due to furnace-related challenges. However, the gas-based furnace has resolved this issue as the heat gets equally distributed and helps prepare the perfect shape and quality. Now, the Khurja potters can compete with international players, he claims.

Labourers in a factory in Khurja organising wares after they were given shape.

Prosanto Pal, associate director of the Industrial Energy Efficiency Division at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), notes the environmental benefits of Khurja’s shift to natural gas, highlighting its minimal impact on the local environment. As the pottery sector is energy-intensive, the fuel used in the sector has a bearing on the local industry. However, he cautions against viewing this transition as the ultimate solution, pointing out the scarcity of natural gas resources. According to Pal, the ultimate solution lies in transitioning to electricity-based furnaces.

President of the Khurja Pottery Manufacturers Association (KPMA) Ravi Rana sheds light on the industry’s pressing issues. After coal was banned, many pottery manufacturers resorted to using industrial oil, which was cost-effective at around Rs 50 per litre. However, both industrial oil and diesel were subsequently banned by the NGT. Presently, the industry is left with only expensive options, such as liquified petroleum gas or piped natural gas, priced at more than Rs 90 and Rs 60 per litre, respectively. Moreover, there is a lack of government support in terms of subsidies for these gases in Khurja, unlike in Agra. This places Khurja pottery manufacturers at a significant competitive disadvantage compared to clusters like Bikaner, where the use of industrial oil is still permitted, he says. Pal from TERI also stresses the importance of government support in facilitating this transition, citing instances where industries reverted to coal usage due to the expense or inaccessibility of gas.

Khurja’s pottery paradox
These are the overarching challenges faced by the industry. However, artisans like Sayeed Ahamed who depend on private factories to fire their pottery encounter a distinct set of struggles. According to Ahamed, if the pottery cracks during transportation to or from the furnace, they bear the burden of remaking it to fulfill orders. These kilns are expensive and need space. So, not everyone can install it for their needs, he adds. Ahamed suggests establishing community kilns at strategic distances, which would eliminate the need for extensive travel and consider the interests of local artisans. This concept is not novel; the DFID report mentions similar facilities existing in the 1960s, with 88 independent units possessing their own firing facilities and 72 units relying on the common facilities managed by the state government.

A showroom on the main road in Khurja selling locally manufactured ceramics.

When queried about traditional artisans who are reliant on external firing facilities, Ravi Rana acknowledges their challenge and says they are barely able to earn their labour costs. He recalls past government initiatives, like common/ community firing facilities during the era of DD kilns, but notes their absence today. However, he expresses skepticism regarding the effectiveness of common facilities now, citing challenges faced by public-sector facilities.

Javed Bashir, proprietor of Ceramyka Potteries, underscores the trade-offs involved. While modern kilns are expensive, they offer energy-efficiency and environmental benefits. With the help of the modern gas-based kilns, artisans can fire more pots and the process takes less time, which means the quality and quantity of pottery has improved. The modern system provides small artisans more flexibility. Even if there is a common facility, these artisans have to travel, he adds.

Ahamed meanwhile adds with a hint of irony that the legacy of Khurja’s pottery is cherished but the potters often feel neglected. “Government schemes and facilities meant for the welfare of potters rarely reach us,” he notes.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/ india.mongabay.com)

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