Suhagan Rani is surrounded by the clay pots, pans and pitchers she and her family have made. Hoping to sell them all she says, “We need to do everything we can to survive.”

Seated near the entrance to her home in Begamganj town in central India, the potter points out landmarks in this town in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh that she has lived in for the last 38 years. 

A group of cows amble along the busy road, lined with vividly painted two-storey buildings. Suhagan lives in the last house in this row – the brick walls of her home are plastered with a thin coat of cement. A mother of nine, her husband passed away in December 2021 and now she lives with her youngest son, Durgesh, 24, who is also a potter. Next door to them live her brother-in-law, Pooran with his wife Laxmi and their son Sandeep.

“Do you see that tree?” Suhagan says, pointing to a peepal tree down the road, “My father-in-law [Prajapati] planted and took care of it. We use the chabootra [platform around the tree] for our work.” Clay pots, handis (utensils), ghelas ( pitchers), clay horse toys, kalles (upturned pans), deepaks (small lamps) and chillums are on display under the shade of this towering peepal, ready for sale. Suhagan estimates that there are only five families who still work as potters in this town of 34,031 people.

Left: Suhagan Rani with pots and clay artefacts on sale in front of her house. Right: Pooran Prajapati sells from the side of the road. Photos by Aashi Verma

Left: Suhagan Rani in her kitchen preparing dinner. Her son Durgesh is seated behind her. Right: Prajapati’s family use the space around the peepal tree in front of their house to dry their clay pots. Photos by Aashi Verma

Now in her fifties, Suhagan wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning and leaves to collect clay, leed, (horse dung) and cow dung from the banks of the Bina river, a two-kilometre walk from her house. This will be mixed with clay which is bought twice a month. A trolley of clay costs Rs, 1,500 and will contribute to making up to 10 pitchers and a few deepaks. The family earns between Rs. 20 to 25 profit per pitcher. 

The damp clay and manure are mixed and spun into shape on electric pottery wheels. “We begin working soon after dawn before the sun rises completely so that we can put them to dry for the rest of the day,” explains Pooran Prajapati, Suhagan’s brother-in-law. 

The products are dried under the peepal tree and then being fired in the bhatti (open furnace) located there. “We make pitchers in small batches as large batches produce too much smoke and officers in the municipal department don’t allow that. We are told to follow swachata abhiyan,” he adds. 

In the last few years, however, finding cow dung, wood for the furnace and other raw material required to make clay items has been hard to come by. The two families now buy wet logs which are cheaper than dry ones, spending roughly Rs. 250 every 15 days during peak season. “Now we buy most of the pitchers from Bhopal [a nearby city],” Pooran says, “It is better this way, since making these costs more!” 

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission has launched the Gramdayog Vikas Yojana which includes a scheme to help potters with training and equipment. But Durgesh says none of this has reached them: “My family never got any machine or tools; never have heard about any help from the government. We have been providing for our work ourselves.” Durgesh says he and his uncle, Pooran Prajapati, “have tried to approach the municipality countless times in hopes of getting loans to expand our business or to get better exposure, but nothing has come of it.”

The fridge, plastic water pots and toys have led to falling demand for their products. “Our business was at its peak around 2008-2009, but not anymore,” Pooran says and adds, “Plastic is most convenient nowadays, and kids don’t play with clay toys anymore either.” 

Suhagan adds, “We sit in the heat for ten to twelve hours to make things which bring in so little money. [To get] even, that even 50 rupees a day is a lot.” 

Flower pots and pitchers used to be best-selling items, but that is not the case anymore. Buyers want pots in different shapes with colour and a sculpted look. “These pots from the city are in demand over traditional ones,” says Pooran. So they find few buyers in their town and no demand in cities. 

Pooran and Laxmi are reassured by their son, Sandeep’s job as a clerk in the local government hospital. Sandeep also helps out after work and on holidays. Suhagan, whose son works with her, must depend on the pension she receives under the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme to run her household. “I have not received my pension for last month, they say it got deducted over some formality (कछु पैसे आ गए थे पर कट गए कए में),” she says, “I get only 600 rupees. It is not much, but still it is a great help.” Her other children have all moved away; the other sons also work as potters in different locations.

Suhagan and Durgesh earn around Rs. 30-40,000 during festivals such as Diwali and Navratri when people are looking to buy deepaks, gullaks (piggy banks), havan bedi (religious objects) and statues of goddess Laxmi. This helps them tide over the off-season monsoon months – between June and September – when they are unable to make and dry their products outdoors. During this time, both families use the extra room in Pooran’s house to store their products.

When Suhagan’s late husband was ill, she had borrowed around a lakh of rupees from people in her neighbourhood to pay for his medical treatment. “We are not making enough to pay back this money,” she says. 

A few days after he passed away, Suhagan went to the local municipal office and submitted an application form for financial support under the National Social Assistance Programme. This scheme gives Rs. 20,000 to a household living below the poverty line conditions, in case of the death of the primary breadwinner. “We owe money to almost everyone we borrowed from and the delay in compensation is making things difficult.” Durgesh adds that keeping alive familial ties involves chipping in for weddings and other commitments, something they can ill afford. 

The financial insecurity has taken a toll on his mental and physical health: “My body aches and my blood and energy level is always low. I should go to the city for my check-up but I have to put it off for now,” he says. Durgesh has to rest often due to a lack of energy. He lies down in the front room of the house while his mother sits on the threshold and cuts vegetables for dinner while keeping an eye on any customers.

The sun is setting, and by 9 p.m. Durgesh will close the shop, covering the clay items with a tarpaulin sheet. 

“We wait for passersby who are returning home from work and hope that they buy something. Then I will go home and wait for tomorrow,” he says.

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Editor's note

Aashi Verma is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Economics at Ahmedabad University. 

She says, “I was interested in examining how small-scale workers are affected by rapid urbanisation, especially in light of the pandemic. Working on the story, I got to document and witness Suhagan Devi's daily life and the importance of familial obligations. Getting an opportunity to write for PARI Education made me realise how important the details are when you work on the ground; every detail tells a story.”