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Guwahati: The ever-growing demand for plastic goods, coupled with nearly two years of pandemic-induced lockdown, has pushed Assam’s terracotta industry to the brink of extinction. 

The terracotta craft practised in Assam, Bangladesh and parts of West Bengal goes back to the early nineteenth century. About 200 years ago, a cluster of families migrated to Assam from Pabna district of erstwhile Bengal (now Bangladesh) to settle in the Asharikandi village of Dhubri district on the Indo-Bangladesh border. 

These families started their traditional art form- terracotta- making utensils, flower pots, cattle feeding bowls used in households and idols of gods and goddesses.

However, this climate-friendly craft faces an uncertain future amid decreasing demand and competition from plastic goods. 

“I have been associated with this craft since I was 10-12 years old. I remember learning the craft alongside learning alphabets. My children also know it a little bit. During the lockdown, the business faced a huge loss as there wasn’t a single customer. We faced lots of hardship. The supply of Hiramati (clay used in making terracotta products) had also stopped,” said Mahendra Paul, President of Terracotta Co-operative Committee, Asharikandi.

Sandhyrani Paul, 45, a resident of Asharikandi has been crafting Terracotta products since she was a kid. Her family was one of the 59 families to receive a one-time financial help of Rs 10,000 from the Assam government in 2018 to make a chimney used for drying the clay after making the product.

“My parents introduced me to clay used in terracotta. When I was a kid, I used to make dolls with my mother. After my marriage, I and my husband started working on terracotta. We can manage two squares of meals, but the money is not enough to save.”

Biplav Paul, a member of the Terracotta Co-operative Committee, said, “During the lockdown, the villagers were sitting idle. The terracotta products need space to store. But we don’t have space inside our houses. The customers who used to come from outside stopped. We had to take loans to make ends meet during the lockdown.

The industry, which earlier catered to a huge demand for household goods like kitchen utensils, cattle-feeding bowls, flower pots, etc., now focuses mostly on making idols sold three times a year: Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Saraswati Puja. Other than that, the rest of the year is dry for the craft-men.

“The customers say as these are clay products, they are easily breakable. They like to go for plastic goods. Tubs, dishes, glass, bowls etc. no longer have demand. After the silver goods came, no one buys clay water reservoirs from us. But this is our traditional craft, and we need to keep it alive. Even now, more than 100 families are entirely dependent on Terracotta”, said Rajiv Paul, another craftsman.

According to Rajiv Paul, ten years ago, he used to sell 20-25 items a day in the local market of Asharikandi. However, the numbers have now reduced to 5-6 a day.

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