It would be an understatement to say that a quarter century ago, the potter’s village of Aruvacode in Kerala’s Malappuram district, was suffering. It had the best potters in the region but with the influx of cheap steel, aluminium and plastic substitutes, their earthen products had little demand. Many of the 200 potter families went into penury. A number of their women became prostitutes. Children and men became pimps. A newspaper story brought this into national limelight. Suddenly, social workers descended and several organisations, in full media glare, vied to help the villagers ‘realise their potential’. When the novelty and excitement had waned, the scribes and the social workers moved on to greener pastures. Only KB Jinan stayed on.
A graduate from the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, Jinan came to Aruvacode in 1992 thinking he would stay 10 days in the village. He spent two months. The next year, he came expecting to stay for six months. And that turned into a lifelong association. He realised why the other social workers had failed. They had been trying to get the potters to switch over to modern skills like candle making and book- binding. Or, they tried to market the products in faraway markets. He realised the only solution was that the potters must exploit the craft they were born to but create articles which had demand.
At the time, they were making pots, vases, huge garden lamps and birdbaths. After a few years of experimentation, which included one failed exhibition which left them broke, Jinan developed the concept of ‘terracotta in architecture’. Under Jinan’s guidance the potters worked on things like fancy tiles which found a bankable market in the high-end segment. Jinan added terracotta wall hangings with murals, dinner sets, ashtrays, candle stands and other such items. He then marketed them through successful promotional campaigns and exhibitions. Aruvacode’s products are now sought after artistic pieces across South India.
‘‘It was an interactive process. I never tried to interfere with their style. The credit goes to all the potters in the village, who blended my ideas with their skills,’’ says Jinan.
The products Aruvacode makes are eco-friendly and inexpensive and with environmental consciousness creeping into a new generation of architects, the demand for them has shot up. The potter fraternity in the village is very busy now. And this means better housing, fewer school dropouts and a sense of respectability. Kumbham, the potters’ organisation floated by Jinan, has transformed life in Aruvacode. But Jinan, a bachelor, continues to live in a small rented house in the village, without electricity, TV or other modern essentials.