There is something magical about watching 50-year-old Murali at work as he throws a lump of moist clay on a dusty old electric wheel placed before him. Keeping pace with the spinning motion of the wheel are his hands that pull, shape and mould the clay repeatedly in a rhythmic manner.
Seated erect with his back against the wall, he leans forward to dip his hands into a pot of clayey water to further moisten the lumpen material that is succumbing effortlessly to his will. With deft strokes and the gentle pressure of his thumb and index fingers, he continues to morph the greyish mixture on the wheel head. We watch in fascination as the clay now rises to form the contours of a large flower pot.
In a blink-and-you-miss moment, the soft, misshapen clay undergoes an instantaneous transformation and comes to life as a smoothly shaped pot. A long twine does the neat trick of slicing the bottom of the newly created pot off the wheel. Using the palms of his hands, Murali shapes the fresh clay back into shape to prevent any distortion after he places it alongside the several pots and lanterns of varying sizes that he and his teammates had crafted since morning.
The yard at the Al Fakhir Pottery Works in Al Dhaid, Sharjah, is dotted with hundreds of pottery items that have been spread out to dry in the sun. Dull grey flower pots range in sizes from 10cm to 2m in height, and are etched with floral and geometric patterns. The perforated lanterns are inspired by Moroccan designs and enlivened by motifs intrinsic to the Middle Eastern region.
Rustic tea mugs, without handles, are lined up on a table while large ashtrays and pitchers for drinking water take up space on another. Several pot bases and lid knobs are also spread out on the muddy floor. Clay pots with a wide mouth known as Handi, a requisite of north Indian restaurants specialising in traditionally cooked biryani, are also stacked one over the other.
Outside, in the open air, lies the earthen-coloured pottery ware taken out of the kiln just the previous morning. Potters are engaged in scrubbing and readying them for dispatch.
Situated on the Dhaid-Masafi Road enroute to Fujairah, Al Fakhir Pottery is staffed by a team of 12 potters who rely on the traditional techniques of clay pottery making. Hailing from a lineage of potters from the southern Indian state of Kerala where they were accustomed to chiefly making earthenware for cooking purposes and small to medium-sized flower pots, it is here in the UAE that they have honed their craft by blending Arabic and Indian aesthetics and catering to the demand for large-sized products.
Al Fakhir Pottery traces its roots to 1986 when its founder, Thomas K Joseph, was tasked with running a small store in the popular Friday Market in Fujairah. ‘He observed that among the several regular vendors in this market which, at the time did not even have electricity, were a couple of Pakistani traders selling small pottery items,’ says his son, Joseph Thomas who handles the day-to-day operations of the pottery workshop.
‘These traders mainly sold incense burners crafted in a nearby town. Since they couldn’t converse in English, my father helped them market their products to the visiting European expatriates,’ he says.
Soon, the onus of selling the craft items was passed on to Thomas Joseph. When he noticed that week after week, every single piece was sold at the asking price, without any bargain, he realised the potential of the business and decided to step in full time.
Hiring two potters from his native village in Kerala, Thomas Joseph commenced operations of Al Fakhir in 1989. The number of employees soon multiplied and at the peak of the business, there were 14 potters working here, explains Joseph.
Murali, who was one of the first employees of the firm, says this art form is a family tradition. ‘I come from a long line of potters. I was only 8 when I made my first piece of pottery - a flat lid for a cooking vessel, and I trained under the tutelage of my uncle.’
When he began working at Al Fakhir in 1989, ‘our chief source of clay came from Ajman,’ he says. ‘We initially started working on smaller objects like flower pots and incense burners. Today, we work with raw material that comes from Karachi which is of excellent quality and guarantees strength and durability to the products we make.’
A 20-feet container of clay lasts around six months, says Murali, as he guides us to the large tanks where the clay is initially submerged in water, after removing any stones or other hard substances from the material. It is then spread out flat to dry where the water drains off through a small channel in the ground.
The moist clay is then mixed with a little locally sourced clay and churned for more than an hour in an electric machine. ‘This is a crucial step in any pottery making unit,’ explains Murali. ‘The clay ought to have only the right amount of water that will allow it to retain its shape when moulded. It is this plasticity that transforms it into a hard substance on firing.’
As he steers us to the potter’s wheel close by, Murali tells us that one of the most important skills required to become a potter is to have a steady hand. ‘The way you handle the clay on the wheel, how you touch it, the amount of force applied, and most importantly, how and when you release your fingers off the clay are all crucial in gaining mastery of this art form.’
To an onlooker, the act of throwing a pot may look effortless but, says Murali, ‘it is a technique that requires great strength and can be mastered only with continuous practice.’
Around 20 large size planters can be made in two working days. It is not possible to finish a large pot at one go, says Murali. ‘These are created in three separate pieces that are then moulded together.’
Finished products may take a couple of days to dry, depending on the weather. When a sizeable number of products have been crafted and designed, these are stacked one by one into the kiln. ‘It takes an entire day from dawn to sunset for this task as one single misstep could see us lose our entire stock during the firing process. It is with a prayer on our lips and in our minds that we set about placing one object after another in the kiln. We are talking of roughly 1,000 pieces in a small kiln. Utmost care should be given to ensure that they are evenly spaced out and balanced atop each other properly.’
For four days thereafter, the kiln is continuously fired via gas and diesel, reaching temperatures of over 1,000 degrees. ‘The prayer never leaves our lips all through these days.’
The firing process is an integral part of the pottery making process. ‘It removes all water from the clay, and causes remarkable changes in its physical properties. From a soft, pliable substance, it transforms into a hard, stone-like substance. Since our kilns are gas fired, the higher temperatures further harden and strengthen these clay vessels and hence, they are not only strong but can also withstand rain and heat over long periods of time and do not break easily.’
When the kiln is opened after four days, it is left to cool before craftsmen start removing the now reddish-coloured objects. Using a sand paper, rough spots are removed and the surface is wiped clean to remove any residual dust before being sent to the clients or suppliers across the UAE including at Al Warsan in Dubai.
The demand in the UAE and across the Middle East region where Al Fakhir exports its handcrafted products is for larger sized flower planters, fountains, and lanterns. According to Joseph, ‘Our clients are mainly in the hospitality industry and their requirements are chiefly for decorative purposes. Aesthetic pieces that are both functional and durable are what our clients seek.’
Several coloured and delicately carved 2m high pots line the entrance of Al Fakhir Pottery, and is hard to miss while cruising down that road. Joseph informs us that his potters had once produced a 3.5 metre tall flower planter carved with historic and cultural symbols of the UAE which was displayed at the Global Village years ago. It has since been sold, he says.
‘We also undertake custom-designs for clients,’ says Thomas. ‘Some novel concepts we have worked on include round seating stools but since these are exclusive designs of the client, we do not display them at the store or replicate it for others.’
There are several pottery units in the nearby vicinity too but these are solely devoted to creating smaller handcrafted items.
Although pottery is now largely being used in the UAE for decorative or ornamental purposes, it has a long tradition in the country and gives an insight into the lifestyle of the people that inhabited this land several centuries ago, he says. ‘The different designs and materials used attest to the flourishing trade networks of the region. Jugs, vases and other pottery items unearthed from across the region and now on display in several museums provide us with valuable and interesting narratives of the distant past.’
Today, the craft is dying a slow death, believes Murali, who first forayed into the world of pottery on a hand cranked machine. He lost two fingers on his right hand and the upper part of his thumb while using a clay brick extruder with rotating parts but that has not stopped him from practicing his craft.
‘Pottery is more than just a mere occupation for me,’ says Murali, who has since moved on to an electric wheel. ‘It is a soul-stirring and life-affirming work that provides me eternal fulfilment.’
Know before you go
• Al Fakhir Pottery is located on E88 Road, Dhaid-Masafi Road, Al Dhaid, Sharjah.
• To undertake pottery sessions or team-building workshops at your choice of location, contact Joseph Thomas on 055-8424577
• Once taken out of the oven, the finished products are dispatched almost immediately. To view a large array of finished items, it is advisable to call before you visit.