Pottery going places through rural women

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The Kuniyur hamlet in Tirunelveli district is just like any other typical village in Tamil Nadu. The village has dusty pathways, and people live in packed small huts. Though majority of the villagers, for them even Chennai is a city of dreams, have not seen the outside world, Kuniyur’s fame has crossed the seven seas and reached the shores of the US.

The Kuniyur village is popular among the Americans for its mastery over pottery. The pots and other related products made by the traditional pottery workers of this small hamlet are being exported to foreign countries, including the US. And the pillar behind this initiative is 52-year-old Shanthi and the voluntary organization who gave a lending hand to the pottery industry of the village.

The ancestors of Shanthi were involved in pottery business, and she too is making pots and other earthenware to make ends meet. But changing times threw up many challenges for her. Shanthi’s income dipped due to natural calamities and lack of proper soil to make clay, and she found it extremely difficult to continue with the vocation. Shanthi and her husband could earn only a paltry Rs 50,000 per year and life became hard for this couple, who has two kids, as demand for pottery went southwards.

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Two years ago, Shanthi approached Srinivasan Services Trust, which had been established by industrialist T V Sundaram Iyengar to protect traditional industries and help workers in the rural areas, to bail her out.

Eventually, the trust took steps to form a cluster group - Narmada - under the leadership of Shanthi to protect the pottery industry of Kuniyur village.

The group had the responsibility to make the workers aware about the government benefits that were due to them. ‘Narmada’ started to gain popularity within a span of two years and its products started to reach the Chennai markets, and also made a mark in the US. Twenty workers are working under Shanthi and each family is netting a revenue of Rs 2.5 lakh per year.

Shanthi and her friends are firmly sticking to the traditional values while taking the pottery industry to new heights. Quality soil found in the village is used to make pots and other products. All markets, including foreign, are impressed by the uniqueness of the earthenware churned out from the Kuniyur village.

The ultimate goal of ‘Narmada’ is to follow the culture and traditions in pottery and not to compete with multi-national companies, and that paid dividends.

When the industry gained momentum, the state government started to source soil from neighbouring places and consigned the raw materials to the village free of cost. Besides Tamil Nadu, the products of ‘Narmada’ are sold in Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

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The new workers are given a two-day training. The pots and other articles, which are manufactured at a cost of Rs 30 to Rs 40, are fetching close to Rs 500 in the market. Each woman in the group has an income of Rs 15,000 per month, which is credited to their respective bank accounts. The women have also learned to withdraw money through ATM kiosks.

Muthukumar, Shanthi’s nephew and an employee of a hotel in the US, had sent videos of the pottery-making process to his American friends during a visit to his home village. And that was the start of a steady flow of orders from the US, and Muthukumar became an agent there. The business started to grow steadily though the only marketing tool was word-of-mouth publicity. The relatives of Muthukumar in Thoothukudi had put in place a business model as the number of orders kept increasing.

Now, Muthukumar is Narmada’s marketing head in the US, and around 15,000 pots have hit the US markets to date. Shanthi’s aim is to make available Kuniyur pots and other related products across the nation, and in other countries too, besides providing a steady income to rural women.

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