Of journeys – The potter and clay

Winter chill in the air and the afternoon sun on your face. A cup of steaming hot adrak chai completes the picture.  We are sipping tea in a miniature tea cup made at Vanmala Jain’s Kuprkabi factory in Mumbai.

We had long felt that the stories about tea entrepreneurs were incomplete without stories about entrepreneurs behind the tea cups. And on tea cups, who better to chat with than the Mumbai based Vanmala Jain, a very renowned name in the art and pottery world.

The journey for the cup, in all probability, started in the swampy lands of Khurja, Bulandshahr. Khurja is largest ceramic tableware cluster in India and has a history going back 600 years.

It was this combination of tradition and antiquity, the sheer shine of the glaze and the ability to mold something exquisite using her own hands that had gripped the imagination of a young Vanmala Jain.

Kuprkabi – an odd name for a business, we thought. The name “Kuprkabi” is in fact two words – cup and rakabi – cup and saucer. A name that sticks in your mind – just like the tiny cup that is so memorable (made on a whim when someone requested for just one teaspoon of tea. This itsy-bitsy creation allows for the visitor to savor both the cup and the tea).  Vanmala started Kuprkabi in 2000 but her pottery journey started earlier. Much earlier. In 1973, in fact.

Just as the clay’s journey started much before it became a cup. More than one year ago, ball clay mixed with china clay, quartz and feldspar travels from Khurja in Uttar Pradesh to Vanmala’s farm in Maharashtra. Placed in a deep pit and then covered, the clay simply rests. For one full year. This long ageing process is critical to make the clay agile and workable.

The start of Vanmala’s journey featured a school, a queen and the queen’s plan to revive an art-form. Studying at the Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls School in Jaipur, Vanmala was introduced to blue pottery in the 10th standard. This was when Rajmata Gayatri Devi was striving to revive this dying art. What was to most students just another subject, so deeply enamored Vanmala, that it became her life’s calling.

Ageing this hobby into a passion, required a college that offered courses in ceramic and pottery.  Luckily, her endeavors led her to the newly set up National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. A fraternity that explored all forms of art: be it pottery or printing; painting or sculpting – nothing was off limits and hands-on was the mantra.

The aged clay in the meanwhile is ready for the next step. It is molded on the potter’s wheel and fired in the kiln. Subjected to temperatures of 1200 to 1300 degrees centigrade, the clay vitrifies – becomes strong, watertight, durable.

The molding for Vanmala happened at the Social Work and Research Center at Tilonia, Rajasthan. The center, now known as the Barefoot College, was set up by Aruna and Sanjit “Bunker” Roy. Tilonia has been described as the Sabarmati of our times by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. That grounding – both in crafts and more importantly, in concern and care for the “have-nots” of the Indian society were key elements in shaping Vanmala’s outlook.

Vanmala Jain

The cup, in the meanwhile, removed from the kiln, gets glazed and now sports a shine. Often after the glazing, it is re-fired. After the two rounds of sustained heat, the cup is now ready for you to drink from.

Kuprkabi is the fire that sustains Vanmala.  This is Vanmala’s NGO firm that provides a continued full time employment to close to 25 people, with some of them having been at the firm since its inception 19 years ago.  It also provides part time employment to people from diverse set of people including school dropouts and work from home ladies. This team of close to 90 people, trained by Kuprkabi, work on designs and assignments given to them and earn a steady income.

Gangubai – a staple favorite with customers

A journey that takes you from your raw shape, ages you, molds and shapes you and finally a fire that gives you strength and resilience – are we talking about a simple cup or is this the story of all of us?

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