C e l e b r a t i n g   i d e a s   b o t h   b e a u t i f u l   a n d   r e v o l u t i o n a r y .

Friday, February 15, 2008

Earthen Vessels in the City of Joy

Through wrought-iron grillwork and light curtain come currents of air, hot and wet, a tropical winter. Moisture brings the air close to your skin, like a silky membrane, its movements too those of a curtain.

This air has a flavor, smoky bittersweet, overlaid with smells of potato and cauliflower frying with kalojeera seeds for breakfast, and luchis rolled thin from dough, fried into puffy golden balloons deflating slowly in a sizzling stack.

Close, too, are the noises rising on moist air from the street below: a lusty cacophony of honks, from assertively nasal Ambassador taxis to bicycle rickshaw horns, high-pitched and insistent as rubber squeak-toys. There are shouts of the street vendors: paan-wallahs and chaat-wallahs, and men in lungis pulling carts of sugar-cane. Outside the window, through hazy sun-filled mango leaves, Dhakuria, South Kolkata is awake.

Join the thronging streets of people walking, talking, eating, shopping. The sidewalk is lined with narrow shops open to the street, their entrances overhung with a benediction of limes and green chilies threaded like beads on a string. In the shelter of a banyan tree’s many-armed embrace is a painted and brocaded shrine, its deity surrounded with tiny bells and curls of fragrant incense smoke.

On the sidewalks vendors hawk their wares, squatting amid stainless steel bowls and pans on gas burners, or sitting under pitched tarpaulins. The chaat-wallah mans his pyramid of hollow deep-fried spheres, puncturing and filling them with potato masala and tamarind water to make puchkas. Flower garlands, guavas, washing and ironing service – all are for sale. But most frequent of all are the stalls selling tea, brewed in a huge tin kettle and poured into small conical earthen cups on a tray. These earthen cups, or bhands, are the disposable cups of choice, made of low-fired, unglazed terracotta, and smashed on the sidewalk by the consumer once the tea is finished. Over time the soft, porous shards disintegrate into dust. Bhands are also the vessel in which yogurt is made and sold in Kolkata, the terracotta walls absorbing excess water content to leave a rich, creamy curd.

In the evening, there is a tent at the end of Station Road in Dhakuria, a simple portico of tarpaulins stretched on poles, where you can order dinner to go: spicy tarka of lentil and egg, with rumali rotis – literally “handkerchief” rotis. A cook punches and twirls the roti dough high above his head to make a diaphanous sheet which cooks in seconds on an upturned iron hemispherical pan. With practiced hands, the tarka chef tosses into the kadhai pan sliced onions, then tomatoes, sizzling and steaming. Next go the lentils, a few handfuls of masala powders, and last the egg, fried and stirred. Before the long and crowded commuter train has rumbled by on the tracks behind the tent, you are holding a bhand filled with tarka, and a bundle of rumali rotis wrapped in a paper bag handmade from newspaper.

For a visitor from the West, habituated to take-out dinners mummified in Styrofoam and accompanied by an army of plastic cutlery, there is a thrill in this simple packaging, a thrill intensified by its lack of fanfare. Could there really be such an easy solution to the problems of litter and non-recyclable trash, of Styrofoam boxes doomed to deathless eternity in a landfill?[1]

The bhand’s ubiquity belies its recent debate and scrutiny across India. In 2004, a notoriously colorful and controversial politician named Lalu Prasad Yadav took charge of the Indian railways ministry, promising widespread reforms and innovations – even announcing that under his supervision, the tracks would be made as smooth as the cheeks of Bollywood beauty Hema Malini. Among the first of Lalu’s reforms was to ban plastic cups on trains, mandating that vendors instead sell tea in earthen cups (known as kulhars in Hindi, bhands in Bengali).

"Storm in a Kulhar," proclaimed a headline in Outlook India,[2] detailing the controversy generated by Lalu's move, its political motivations and practical ramifications. Was it economically feasible, critics questioned, to use kulhars made at a rate of 80 paisa each, rather than plastic cups available for only 25 paisa? This objection loses force, however, in light of Lalu's achievement of a budget surplus in a railway operation which had been on the verge of bankruptcy before the beginning of his term. A government subsidy of Rs. 2.5 billion (~$63 million) is budgeted yearly for buying kulhars to be used by railway vendors.

Opponents of the kulhar scheme also pointed to its ecological imperfections,[3] raising concerns about clay being mined from agricultural land, hardwood trees burned as fuel in kilns, and soot polluting nearby areas. Under such suboptimal conditions, could the plan be sustainable, ecologically or economically? Would the land support the industry? Could the making of kulhars be expected to benefit potters themselves in the long run, or merely line the pockets of middle-men?

Another point under debate in the media was the timescale over which a scrap of broken kulhar would in fact degrade, returning to soil. After all, skeptics warned, shards of pottery recovered from Indus Valley archaeological sites date from thousands of years ago.

The ravages of time and tide which break solid inorganic material into soil comprise two categories of weathering: physical and chemical. Sun and rain beat down physically on a rock, grinding and chipping it away, while contact with air and biological agents weakens its chemical bonds.

Weathering for a porous material like low-fired terracotta is much simpler and faster than for hard rocks, because water and salts can permeate and degrade it internally. Kulhars have no glaze, allowing breakdown to begin as soon as the shards smash on the train tracks. However, the most important factors determining the timescale for weathering - chemical or physical - are climate and environment.

Perhaps one of the reasons why bhands, so hotly debated in the national railways scheme, remain commonplace in Kolkata is their perfect adaptation to the environment of Bengal. A humid tropical climate is optimal for chemical weathering, and heavy monsoon rains add physical weathering. How long until a piece of bhand returns to its elements? Exact information is difficult to find; however ceramic engineers at the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute in Kolkata estimate an 8 or 10 year decay time,[4] not much longer than that required for wax-coated food paper to biodegrade.

More still than an example for recycling and use of renewable resources, the bhand seems to be a model of such a process suited to a place. The alluvial soil of Bengal has long supported traditional clay and pottery craft.[5] Whether this tradition can be transplanted to grow successfully in an arid desert soil, is a question which can only be answered by watching the fate of Lalu's nationwide kulhar policy. What is clear, however, is that naturally successful and sustainable ideas should be supported wherever they arise. Moreover, innovation to design and adapt schemes for sustainability in specific environments is at least as important as the development of new technology to compensate the shortfalls of less than sustainable standardized programs.

What other environments might support the use of hand-crafted bhands? It is hard to imagine that quality yogurt made and sold in terracotta pots would not be enthusiastically welcomed by U.S. or European markets in clay-rich areas. Like a species evolving spontaneously to fill a niche, the bhand occurs naturally in Kolkata. Perhaps, however, a hospitable climate could permit its introduction and success on new soil.
| Printer-friendly version | Email this post |


[1] ^ Biodegradable, www.worldwise.com, retrieved 2.15.2008.

[5] ^ Pottery of Bengal, www.catchcal.com, retrieved 2.15.2008.


  1. Getting away from plastic would be a great idea, Rachel, for the entire industrial world to adapt. I am sure you have heard of such things as the North Pacific Gyre of plastic detritus. Even worse are the plastic particles and plastic-related estrogen-like chemicals moving their way up the world's food chain. There's a great article on all this stuff by Susan Casey in Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2007, ed. by Richard Preston, which I highly recommend.

  2. Thanks very much for the excellent references, Eliot - I hadn't seen this article, so I'm looking forward to checking it out!

  3. Wonderful descriptions of the street scenes! I remember the delicious, earthy yoghurt in Nepal. Piled pots on the backs of bicycles heading to market. I ate one each morning and tossing it to the ground, knowing that it would degrade. A good feeling. In New Zealand my parents use a yoghurt maker, which eliminates the need for countless plastic containers. But the maker itself is plastic. I would be thrilled to see yoghurt in terra cotta, fresh each morning--sold on the corners in Manhattan.. :)

  4. Thanks so much for stopping by, Chloe! I would love fresh yogurt in terracotta pots in Manhattan, too (or in Amsterdam!). In absence of that, a yogurt maker is a good idea, too.

  5. This is as elegant in its language as in its ecological argument. What a pleasure to read. Your familiarity with the street and food culture of India is a joy and your gifts as a literate, engaging interpreter of the unfamiliar
    are glaringly evident.

    How well I remember the clay cups of India during my hot, steamy summer of train and bus travel through that land in the early sixties. No paper or Styrofoam cups around in those days. The trays of tea-filled kulhars/bhands (I'm so glad to know its name) would appear through the train/bus windows at every stop and I'd grab one in a near futile attempt to quench an unquenchable thirst.

    It seems your article has a perfect destination in Alfred University and this area -- clay capital of the western world! It is definitely one of those back-to-the-future practices we've got to be rethinking without delay.