Monday, 2 August 2010

In Search of Delhi's last Blue Potter

It suits to go into Old Delhi with a mission. Why else would one bother to venture into that teeming squalid tangle of tiny lanes? For fun? For the pleasure of eating a deep-fried parantha cooked on the street at Parantha Wali Gali, in the midst of millions of invisible flecks of flying fecal matter? It's really not all that, no matter how the guidebooks might try to romanticise it. It just makes you feel grubby.

But there is one quite decent way to see it: perched four feet off the street in a cycle rickshaw that's winding it's way through off-the-map back alleys. There's lots to see, and your chappals aren't being cakes in goat poo.

And there are goats, lots of them, everywhere. With my feet jammed against the footstop (the cycle rickshaws of Old Delhi have no sides, making a journey in them a precarious folly at times) I spotted countless animals, here in the heart of the city. After a while, when the goats become ho-hum, you suddenly spot a flash of glossy black. There, in an alleyside pen the size of a bathroom, are three water buffaloes.

And then, in amongst the cycle and pedestrian traffic, comes an ox cart.

I was there on a mission: to seek out the last Delhi Blue potter, a practitioner of a style of pottery that's a hangover from the days of the Mughals. You might have spotted faded turquoise tiles on various monuments around the city: that's Delhi Blue.

In fact it's just the local, British-given name for the Persian Blue tiles of the Islamic world: from Samarkhand, to Isfahan, to Kabul. The style wound its way across to India, where potters settled in a village in Uttar Pradesh called Khurja, still known as a pottery hub. Delhi Blue pottery is made from a mixture of crushed minerals, while the lapiz lazuli-like blue colour comes from cobalt oxide that is cast in a mould and then glazed.

Now I am not sure whether it's the common Jaipur blue pottery with the yellow flowers you can get easily at any souvenir shop or Dilli Haat - I think most likely not, but there is only one way to find out. And that's how I found myself perched precariously on the back of a cycle rickshaw in Old Delhi.

The details I had were sketchy. All I knew was that the man called Hazarilal lived somewhere in Hauz Sulaiwan, in one of the alleys behind the southern Turkman Gate entrance.

Turkman Gate is ideally positioned right next to the Delhi Stock Exchange, an image that no doubt will feature in many Delhi: Old and New feature stories in coming months, as the Commonwealth Games approach.

Here, I hopped out of the rickshaw and shuffled my way through the hordes of people through the gates to the left of the arch. Where was Hazarilal? I suddenly realised exactly how daunting this little endeavour was. So I stopped and asked these guys, in one of a number of hole-in-the-wall stalls lining the main road into the old town, if they knew him.

It was a long shot, but it turned out they did and even knew where he lived. They flagged down a cycle rickshaw for me and instructed him where to go - Hazarilal's home/studio was a good kilometre away: and there was little chance I would have been able to find it myself.

Each time I'd been to Old Delhi before I'd been to the area around Chandni Chowk and the Jama Masjid, but this route took me through winding back streets that were well off the tourist map.

It was schools-out time, so every few minutes we passed another cycle rickshaw carrying up to a dozen schoolchildren squeezed into every corner of the vehicle.

Ploughing deeper and deeper into the bowels of the old walled town, I started to get nervous. Would I ever be able to find my way out? Then the cyclist stopped. We were at Hauz Suiwalan, a small 'neighbourhood': really, a collection of maze-like streets. He asked around. I flourished a sign I'd had the foresight to prepare with 'Hazarilal' written clearly. Curious passersby shrugged, not knowing and not bothering to lie.

Then one guy pulled out a cellphone. He knew Hazarilal and his grandson. "Where are they?" I asked excitedly.

He shook his head. "Not here, they've moved,"

Turns out, Hazarilal, the last in a line of blue potters who've lived in Old Delhi since Mughal times, a year ago made the move to suburbia: decidedly less colourful, but far more comfortable.

I'm due to visit sometime in the next week; stay tuned for part two.


ephemerette said...

Such a shame you were to late for Hazarilal, good luck tracking him down. Your second photo just jolted a buried memory - not the guys helping you find him but the little snack stall in the background. I spent several summer holidays in Karachi as a child and remember being obsessed by the colourful lines of crisps and snacks hanging of the roofs and walls of places like these -like edible bunting. I'm going to start craving coca cola out of a proper glass bottle with a paper straw next!

Lonelyuncle said...

have you read Holy Cow? it is also similer account ofindia