Out of the Blue
Jaipur's long affair with blue pottery has led to the belief that the art is indigenous to the area. However, historians point out that it began to really flourish in the city in the 19th century under the auspices of Sawai Ram Singh II. The modern resurgence of blue pottery is attributed to the efforts of Leela Bordia who stumbled upon it in 1978 while visiting villages around Jaipur as part of her social work. She realised that with a bit of entrepreneurship, she would be able to bring blue pottery into the mainstream, thereby creating a livelihood for many craftspersons. Two years later she had created Neerja Pottery, which has, since, become a model for sustainable and socially-conscious business.
Over the last three decades, the company has promoted blue pottery both in India and abroad, expanding its operations and evolving product lines. Its ingenuity has resulted in the creation of many new jobs in rural areas. "We really have to promote this craft to keep it alive," says Bordia, stressing that despite the resurgence in popularity of blue pottery, factors such as urban migration and mass production have pushed the craft o the verge of extinction. "It is our moral duty to support handicrafts, because if they die, an identity will die with them." Neerja's business practices support this effort by working with craftspeople in their respective villages instead of bringing them to Jaipur to create artefacts. Many of the craftspersons behind Neerja's creations are farmers, who, without the supplementary income they earn through the initiative, would have no choice but to go to larger towns or cities to work as labourers. The practice of running production in villages has created sustainable and attractive employment opportunities, with a new generation of villagers taking up the art, often following in the footsteps of their parents.
However, despite Neerja Pottery's good efforts, it will take continued public support for blue pottery to continue to survive through the next 30 years, especially in an era where function takes precedence over form. "A craft will not last until and unless its utility is sustainable," says Bordia. With this in mind, she set out to work with potters to design products that were both useful and beautiful, using colours and designs that would have been unheard of in previous generations. While Neerja's main showroom in Jaipur's C-Scheme neighbourhood still stocks a huge selection of pots and vases, it also houses a number of less conventional items, ranging from small pocket-mirrors to huge tabletops. Innovative and unexpected items such as beads, doorknobs, napkin rings and incense burners are also popular. Neerja also sells other locally-produced crafts alongside its clay creations, including dolls and plush toys for children as well as a range of key chains, jewellery and decorations inspired by the accessories worn by the Kalbeliya Roma community of Rajasthan.
Neerja Pottery has a warehouse, which is actually more of a museum than a stockroom. Here you will find one-of-a-kind pieces on display, each with its own story to tell. One piece depicts afish wearing a crown, which was created in honour of Sushmita Sen when she won the Miss Universe crown in 1994. Another set has a green-hued jungle theme, exemplifying how the traditional art form has moved beyond the typical blue vases and pots to become the success thatit is today.
Neerja International Inc.
Showroom: S-19Bhawani Singh Road, C-Scheme, Ext. (222-4395). Warehouse: 399/A Shri Gopal Nagar, Gopalpura Bypass.