Vessels. Hand-modelled terracotta; max. 40 cm x 32 cm.; min. 19 cm x 18 cm. Thongjao, Manipur. Contemporary. VC.

Goddess Panthoibi1 wife of Anadi Bhagwan, as she is known in Thongjao and Chairan, or Leima Leinaitabi in the Shangmai and Andro villages of Manipur, is said to have taught the Women of Manipur the sacred art of hand-modelled pottery.

The women potters model the pots in the ‘slab’ technique where a band of clay is rolled to form a cylinder to which a base is attached. The collar is formed by circumambulating a wooden stool or lepshum in the manner of a wheel. The rest of the pot is beaten into shape with the aid of a wooden beater and a stone anvil. When asked why they prefer not to use the wheel to model their pots, the women generally reply that the wheel makes them dizzy!

So important is goddess Panthoibi for the woman potter of Manipur that before every firing, offerings of flowers, incense and water are made to her along with a solemn prayer to protect her pots from cracking.

Moreover, there are songs that highlight the special relationship between the Manipuri woman-potter and her clay that is described as being “harder than iron, not melting in water”:

You my love,
come. Come with me.
We — all of us —
desire you
Walk ahead,
as I walk with you.

The philosophy of the people of Manipur is amply illustrated in the metaphoric ballad that refers to how a bird, even if it returns to its own tree, will never recognise the branch it had perched upon earlier. Similarly, pottery shards will always remain separate and different from mother earth, from which they have originated even when they return to it. The essential contradictions of life and death are inherent in the songs of the potter women of Manipur.

The unusual shapes of these vessels, so elegantly modelled, could never have been turned on a wheel. The orange-black tongues of fire on the glossy surface of these pots are profound symbols of nature’s contribution to aesthetic sensitivity.

1. In conversation with potter Neelmanidevi and her husband Shyam Jai Singh
2. Free translation from Manipuri to Hindi, by Shyam Jai Singh and from Hindi into English by Pria Devi

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