Anglo artisans keep potting along
Sri Saparni, 45, (right) claws out a fistful of dark chocolate clay, adds a pinch more and throws it on a small wooden wheel.
She gives it a spin with a wrist-flick, and then splashes her hands in a tub of muddy water. A quick pummel to expel air, then the rising and shaping. It’s an act of creation, simple yet wondrous.
Exactly 75 seconds later she’s crafted a lipped bowl of simple beauty using technology that was present when men stalked megafauna and a mammoth steak was the real thing.
The only concessions to modernity are the use of wire to cut the pot free from the wheel and a small bearing salvaged off a car so the wheel spins smoothly. Otherwise Sri and her colleagues in the central Java village of Bentangan could be potting around in Mesopotamia during the Stone Age. (See Breakout).
“I learned my skills from my mother, as she did from hers,” said the 45-year old as she deftly transformed an ugly lump of dirt dug from a nearby paddy into a practical utensil – and a thing of beauty.
“About 80 families live here. Most are involved in making and selling pots.”
She thought it strange than an outsider should see art in what is to her a basic job, an industrial enterprise, though located in the villager’s living rooms and verandas.
For these toilers are, like weavers, carpenters, metalsmiths and other skilled artisans, among the thousands of seldom recognized ‘home industries’ that power much of the nation’s regional economies.
In a side room is the kiln, a floor of bricks above the fire chamber where rice straw is burned for six to ten hours, depending on the weather.
In what used to be a bedroom a broody hen incubates her clutch on a mattress tossed onto piles of anglo, the little braziers that have long been the archipelago’s kitchen ovens. Even in some cities you can still see them on the sidewalks boiling a kettle.
It comes in two separate parts – a dish or pot supported above the flames on three lugs attached to the lip above the fire chamber.
In 2007 the Indonesian government set out to encourage 50 million householders to stop using kerosene as a cooking fuel and convert to gas. The lime green metal cylinders are now everywhere, but it took time to convince the nation to go for gas.
One of those not persuaded was Sugino, 61, who got a bad burn on the inside of his forearm when free gas ignited – perhaps from a faulty bottle or, more likely, misuse of the equipment.
“After that I decided I’d never try gas again,” he said. “Food cooked by gas is tasteless. Many think like this because there’s been no reduction in our sales of anglo despite all the pressure to make us change.
“You can use anything that burns with an anglo. Bits of wood can be scavenged – gas can only be bought. [The three kilo canisters cost about Rp 17,000 – US $1.30] to fill
“Of course people break their anglo and need new [The largest cost around Rp 7,500 – US 60 cents.] If you put bricks around the sides to stop rapid cooling they can last a long time.”
The irony of Sugiono’s gas accident is that he’s never been injured working the kiln, though his tasks include stoking the furnace and shovelling smoldering ash over the pots.
For occupational health and safety professionals the kilns of Bentangan, about 20 kilometers south-west of Solo, should be featured in a textbook titled Hazards Beyond Belief.
The dry straw is stacked next to the fire so it can be easily pitchforked into the flames. The workers are unhampered in their labors by the need to wear steel-capped boots, a fire- retardant apron or face mask.
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Perhaps they stay safe because they’re not on edge fearing the sudden arrival of workplace inspectors and the closure of their businesses.
Modern kilns are sealed and fired by gas or electricity which allows precise controls over the process. Older kilns are wood fired; if the timber is hard and dry, high temperatures can be maintained.
But straw flares and dies. It gives out a surge of heat before crumpling into ash and smoke, so the fire must be constantly attended, and then left to cool for at least a day.
How to tell the temperature, which should stay constant between 1000 and 1200 degrees Celsius? How to know when to keep burning and when to stop? The potters of Bentangan only encounter thermometers at the puskesmas [community health center].
The intensity of a firing can be boosted by pulling out a few floor bricks to let in more air or fanning the flames. The temperature can be dropped by starving the flames of fuel; it’s all done by feeling.
Quality control is simple; if the pot rings when tapped, ting-ting say the locals, it’s OK.
While the West agonizes over ways to get back to basics, recycle and use natural products, Indonesians just get on and adapt whatever’s to hand.
The proof that intuition trumps instruments is in the results – batches of bisque [unglazed] ochre pots and anglo ready for the shops in Yogyakarta and Semarang in Central Java, and Surabaya across the border in East Java.
Sumiyem, 75, used to make the journey in a pick-up or truck two or three times a month, but has now passed marketing on to younger villagers. “I’m getting too old,” she said as she easily hefted a clutch of anglo outside. There are pots – but no pot stomachs in Bentangan.
A revolutionary invention
Nomadic tribes never mastered the art of pottery, for who’d want to carry a heavy and fragile container across deserts?
It was left to our ancestors who settled in the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what are now parts of Iraq, Kuwait and Syria to develop receptacles, first for transporting and holding water – later for cooking.
The Bill Gates of Mesopotamia watched workers turning clay to get the shape right and thought laterally. Why not keep the potter’s hands in one place and rotate the bench to make the job easier and the artefact symmetrical?
So the potter’s wheel was invented about 5,000 years ago, which allowed production to boom. One of the many spin-offs was the ability to decorate a whirling pot and so add art to an artefact. Mesopotamia was also the birthplace of writing.
In those days, as in rural Indonesia today, workers squatted on the floor and spun the wheel by hand. The kick wheel was developed later, probably in Europe where potters sat on chairs which allowed their feet to be involved in the process. Now electric motors drive wheels.
First published in The Jakarta Post J Plus 17 May 2015