Main story: It’s 6am. Gangzur, a village in Lhuentse, is covered in thin mist as the sun breaks through the gaps from the clouds.
In one of the traditional houses in the valley, Sonam Tobgay, is wide-awake and active. He is getting ready for the long day ahead of him.
Unlike people his age, the 20 year-old heads early to work at a traditional house nearby. There he is learning the traditional art of making potterywares from the only two remaining elder women in the village who are well versed in this art.
Gangzur is known for pottery. Gangzur is located two kilometres away from the Lhuentse dzong.
But like most of the traditional arts and crafts, this art form is slowly disappearing since the two elder women, Aum Tshewang and Aum Tshering Zangmo, are the only remaining people practicing this art form in Gangzur.
Sonam Tobgay reaches at their place where the two elder women are waiting for him. Sonam Tobgay starts removing stones and other granules from the red and yellow sandy clay, which is collected from hill in front of their house. He then starts kneading and beating the clay, which is already mixed with water, into malleable dough. The pots are then shaped on a thatched wooded plank.
Sonam Tobgay struggles with this process because he still needs to get used to it, whereas the two elder women are already done making several pots, which are left to dry in the sun for two days. The pots are then put in a fire, the last process, to make them firm and durable. It takes a few days to finish making these earthen pots.
Sonam Tobgay takes a break. Sweat has already formed on his forehead, which he wipes away with a piece of cloth. Sonam Tobgay completed his high school a year ago. After not qualifying for a college within the country, he decided to pursue the art of traditional pottery as his career.
When people my age are leaving their villages to pursue higher studies or looking for jobs, I’m the only one in my village pursuing pottery many are hardly interested in today, Sonam Tobgay said.
“Till this day, people continue discriminating the art as a low-cast job, but I see it as a cultural heritage passed down through generations and a passion that I will continue pursuing,” he said.
Although the history of the craft in Bhutan is not clearly known, mostly women have traditionally practiced it, a skill that has been handed down from mothers to daughters.
The two elderly women are the only remaining people who know about this skill and it will die with them, Sonam Tobgay said. “I feel the responsibility to uphold this traditional art and hopefully other young people like me will also value and appreciate this art form.”
Although Sonam Tobgay doesn’t earn much from this craft, which he sells the finished items along the highway near his home, it’s enough to get by for now.
In Thimphu, Maiyesh Tamang, 34, is among a handful that have studied the art of pottery and ceramics as his college and masters degree in India. He is a member of Voluntary Artists’ of Studio in Thimphu (VAST).
Today, Maiyesh Tamang teaches people who are interested in the art of traditional as well as modern pottery in his small studio at VAST. He mostly teaches them free of cost.
For Maiyesh Tamang the love of pottery started when his mentor at college introduced it to him and later after he discovered how it was a dying culture in the country. When he completed his studies, Maiyesh Tamang held his first training in 2013, where he realised there were people still interested in the art of pottery making.
Maiyesh Tamang then travelled towards the eastern part of the country where he met with the elders and a few young people practicing the skill. There he conducted a few trainings as well.
“Many don’t realise this but pottery can be a way to solve the rising unemployment issue in the country. Today, this art form is disappearing because of the lack of right support and recognition it deserves although there are non-governmental organisation such as Tarayana supporting this craft,” he said.
To make an earthen pot, the raw materials required are red soil and clay, which are natural elements, Maiyesh Tamang said. “One doesn’t need much investment since the raw materials needed are not expensive. There is market to sell local pots or ceramics given the right recognition from the concerned agencies and people.”
With the advancement of cheap, easily available metal and plastic utensils, the traditional craft of pottery slowly lost it appeal to the Bhutanese people over the years starting from the sixties, Maiyesh Tamang said. “The traditional clay pots were slowly replaced by metal pots. Even the technique used to make the traditional pots is traditional and many find it difficult to learn. Despite that it’s important to revive and preserve this art form, which represents our cultural identity and significance.”
Sonam Jamtsho, a coordinator of Tarayana Foundation at Gangzur, said this art form has been disappearing because of the stigma it attaches to people who practice it.
Still to this day, people consider those who make pots as people of low cast, which should not be the case since it’s a viable business and people should realise this by now, Sonam Jamtsho said.
In a move to revive this craft, several workshops were conducted in the past few years for school dropouts and a pottery club were also formed in schools in Lhuentse.
Today, apart from Gangzur, a few in Trongsa, Trashiyangtse, Mongar and Punakha still practice the traditional art of pottery to this day.
“I hope to start small, such as making flower pots in the future, but for now I feel the responsibility to continue training more people, both young and old, so that the art of pottery making doesn’t disappear with the older potters,” Maiyesh Tamang said. “It’s a start but we have a long way to go.”