The Beginning of Blue Pottery
Blue Pottery is Turko-Persian in origin, but today it is widely known as one of the distinctive crafts of Jaipur. When the city of Jaipur was founded in 1727 by Sawai Jai Singh I, craftsmen from all over the country were invited to come and make their home in this new city. Royal patronage, lucrative offers and the attraction of living in a beautiful city led many artisans and craftsmen to come and settle in Jaipur. By the beginning of the 19th century the city was well established as a thriving art centre. In keeping with the traditions of his forefathers, Sawai Ram Singh II (1835-1880) set up a school of art and continued to encourage artists and craftsmen.
Blue Pottery took an interesting route in finding its home in Jaipur. Sawai Ram Singh II attended a kite flying session and watched as his kite masters were engaged in battle with two brothers from Achnera (near Agra). When the ruler saw that the brothers managed to bring down the royal kites almost every time, he was intrigued. He asked the brothers their secret. They told him that they were potters by profession and had coated their strings with the same blue green glass that they used for their pots. Sawai Ram Singh II was so much impressed that he invited the brothers to stay in Jaipur and teach this unique form of glazed pottery at his new art school.
On the Verge of Extinction:
Blue Pottery had enormous potential and should have flourished, but over the years master potters refused to share their trade secrets with their fellow craftsmen so there was an eventual lowering of standards and a gradual dying out of the craft. Over the years the craft was kept alive by her Royal Highness Gayatri Devi who widely promoted Blue Pottery. The craft received a much needed boost in the 1960's as internationally renowned artist: Kripal Singh Shekhawat entered the field of Blue Pottery and raised the bar. His presence brought a new excitement to the craft as his designs began selling very well. But still the use of Blue Pottery was very limited.
The product range only consisted of a few large items such as bowls, plates, and vases, thus the market declined. Many craftsmen had no option but to leave their villages and go to the cities in search of work. With the dwindling number of potters left, Blue Pottery faced extinction as there was little hope in sight.
The Blue Pottery Renaissance
In 1977, Leela Bordia visited the slum areas nearby the Jaipur city side. What she saw made her weep. The poverty there was unbearable and people were leaving in hordes for the city in search of work. They ended up in the city slums and became the urban destitute. Self-respecting, proud farmers now either became day laborers or pedaled cycle rikshaws in the scorching sun for a paltry sum of money.
Some women were even forced into prostitution just to feed their families. Leela was devastated at the living conditions these people were having to endure and was determined to figure out a way to help. One day, an old lady approached Leela and asked for some money to buy medicine, Leela readily agreed and gave the money to the lady. After a few days, this same lady and others came asking for money again.
Leela reflected on the situation and thought that it was best that instead of giving the people money she should figure out a way to help them make their own living. Later that week, while in the village she discovered some craftsmen making exquisite pottery. They made pots and vases and painstakingly hand painted them in patterns that were perhaps a thousand years old. "You have so much talent. Such a beautiful craft. Then why are you so needy?" she asked. "Because nobody wants to buy our pots any more," they said. "Our craft is dying and more and more craftsmen are going to the cities in search of work."
Leela quickly realized that this was the opportunity to help the people, to create new jobs and improve their living conditions. She said to them: "Let's work together. You make your products and I will help you sell them." The potters liked the idea, but they were still skeptical at trusting an outsider. In addition Leela also knew she would have to convince the potters to break from tradition and make new and more marketable designs. This was her toughest challenge. Leela spent two years watching and talking to the craftsmen, offering suggestions, telling them to make utility items, but for two years they wouldn't listen to her.
Then finally, a potter named Kailesh came to Leela and agreed to work with her designs. Soon Leela, met a French buyer named Paul Comar. He saw the potential in Leela's work and placed an order for extravagant Blue Pottery bead curtains that he would sell in his Paris retail store. He paid 50,000 rupees in advance for the order. Leela and Kailesh worked as quickly as possible, finished the curtains and sent them to Paul. The project didn't turn out as planned, the beads were lower quality than Paul expected so he couldn't sell them in his shop. Leela had planned for re-orders but she ended up being stuck with two big sacks filled with hundreds of beads. Leela did not give up though; she decided to make necklaces out of the beads. So Kailesh made the necklaces for her and she displayed them for sale at a retail shop named Anokhi. At the time the movie "Far Pavillions" was being filmed. While the necklaces where still lying on the counter to be displayed, a few actresses from the movie came in the store, saw the necklaces and bought them all! "After this moment, I never looked back!" Leela said. She continued working with Paul Comar, who, as it turned out, became a life-long friend and mentor to Leela. She took Paul's advice and mixed it with her own creativity to develop hundreds of new products that served as utility items, yet maintained the identity of the Blue Pottery craft.
From one potter to over 150 potters, the business excelled thanks to the new products and high quality standards that Leela insisted upon. That was the beginning of Neerja International and the rejuvenation of the Blue Pottery craft. Named after Leela's younger sister Neerja, the company today provides work for thousands of craftsmen. The future of Blue Pottery looks better than ever. Hundreds of new designs are being made each year and the craftsmen have successfully passed on the craft to their second and even third generations, thus ensuring that the craft will continue to thrive for many years to come.