Manipur's Longpi pottery tells the story of a craft that is both beautiful and sustainable
Something of the idyllic setting of their village in the hills of Manipur reflects in the shiny black pottery that is entirely handmade without a potter's wheel, that sisters Presley and Pamshangphi Ngasainao have brought to sell at a Crafts Council Exhibition in Coimbatore.
Pankaja Srinivasan 8 April 2022 2:08 PM GMT
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
It is a sultry day in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and sisters Presley and Pamshangphi Ngasainao, sweating profusely, stand surrounded by shiny black pottery ware. "It is very hot for us. It is very different from home," smiled Pamshangphi.
Home is more than 2,000 kilometres away in Manipur in northeast India, where they come from a village called Longpi in Ukhrul district on the Indo-Burma border. They belong to the Tangkhul tribe.
The sisters depend on exhibitions to sell the Longpi pottery they make along with others in the village. They are in Coimbatore at the invitation of Crafts Council of India (Tamil Nadu). The pottery is typical to the region they come from.
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"We are the fourth generation making it. There is a rock called serpentinite found in the hills and forests near our villages and the pottery is made from it after we have processed it," Pamshangphi explained.
After two difficult years of the pandemic, the pottery artistes are happy to be back in business. "We are so happy to be back on the exhibition circuit. We remained home for more than two years," a beaming Presley told Gaon Connection. But the 32-year-old was quick to add that, while they were hit financially, with no sales at all, they were better off than so many others. "We had enough to eat at home because we grow our own rice and vegetables and have our own chickens. So, food and a roof over our head was there," she said.
Manipur's Longpi Pottery
According to 38-year-old Presley, Longpi pottery is hard work. Tribal women break off chunks of rocks and carry them back in baskets to their village and allow them to dry for a couple of days. This usually happens in the winter months when there is no rain and it is after the ploughing season.
"We first break the rocks into smaller pieces with a hammer, then pound it into powder that we then mix with another soft stone we call lishon, and knead into a dough. The lishon makes the mixture soft and sticky," Presley described the process. "We dry it further for a week or two depending on the weather and then shape it in bamboo moulds," she added.
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Everything is hand shaped, no potter's wheel is involved in the process. Once the products are sun dried, they are baked in an open fire. "There is a hard berry we get from a creeper that we use to polish the products and that gives it the shine," she explained.
Traditionally, the families just used two to three shapes of pots. One was to steam rice, the other to cook their stew or curry. But now, the sisters, after their many exhibitions around the country and the many feedback they received, have diversified.
Shiny black tea pots with streaks of smoky grey, and cane-wrapped handles, salad bowls, coffee mugs, casseroles with lids… and of course the traditional, no nonsense and functional pots that they use day to day are displayed at the fair.
The long and edifying road to marketing Presley shared the hits and misses of the pottery ware when they first brought them out of Manipur to sell. "A customer asked me if we could make dosas on one of the flat pottery ware and, since the pottery is safe to cook in, I said 'yes'. A couple of years later that lady met me again and took me aside and told me that dosas did not come out well on it, while rotis did," she laughed.
She also said when they started out, they had no idea of how to price their products. Pointing to a beautiful pan shaped vessel with a handle she said, "We sold it for three hundred and fifty rupees in 2014, now we sell it for thirteen hundred rupees. But in 2014, at an exhibition in Bangalore [Bengaluru, Karnataka] we made forty six thousand rupees and we were thrilled," she reminiscenced. They are wiser now and have learnt along the way, the sisters said.
Before the pandemic, if they got bulk orders, they would make about nine to ten lakh rupees a year. "Of course, we earned nothing in the past two years. But we spent the time making more pottery and growing a garden around our home," laughed Pamshangphi, and showed pictures on her phone of flowers in bloom.
There are about 200 families in Longpi and everyone farms. "All of us grow our own rice and vegetables. When there is time between farming chores, people make the pottery. Of course, Pamshangphi and I spend more time making pottery than farming," Presley explained.
Connectivity and transportation challenge
The challenge for them, they said, was transporting their finished products to places outside their village. "We live in the hills and even to reach Ukhrul, which is about 37 kms away, sometimes takes us three hours. Then there is another four to five hours to Imphal, the state capital," Pamshangphi said. Transportation is the main challenge, she added.
But the sisters are proud that they have had a role to play in spreading awareness about the pottery so special to their village. "We have clients all over the country. Just yesterday someone from Chennai came here to pick up our pottery. We are now waiting for someone from Cochin in Kerala, to visit us," Pamshangphi smiled, as she turned away to explain to a customer how to steam rice in the shiny black cooking vessel that came with a lovely lid.