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The amusing Saggar Makers Bottom Knockers

  • Published at 06:12 pm November 20th, 2015
The amusing Saggar Makers Bottom Knockers

The humblest of occupations are often almost universal. There is no reason to believe, for example, that today, from bathroom cleaners and floor sweepers, to warehousemen and line workers, the work described varies substantially anywhere in the world.

Some such humble occupations, foundations to successful commerce, culture, and society, however, can at least glory in exotic-sounding job titles.

The saggar is a ceramic, box-like container traditionally used in the kiln in the firing process of pottery and ceramics. Widely used, still, in the production of ceramics and pottery in Japan, Korea, China, and UK.

It is hard to believe it is not, also, used in the burgeoning, commercially successful, ceramics and pottery businesses of Bangladesh -- but somehow, it seems a little difficult to ask!

The job title, Saggar Maker, describes a skilled, essential occupation in the indispensable process of firing clay pots. The job title, Saggar Makers Bottom Knocker, however, describes a far more humble, even essentially unskilled, but nonetheless vital contribution to the process.

 It is a job description that was considered sufficiently amusing to feature in the popular 1950s television panel game in UK, “What’s My Line,” to baffle the panel, including such largely forgotten, distinguished, denizens as Isobel, Lady Barnett, and Gilbert Harding attempting, through questions and answers, to guess the occupation of contestants.

It is not an especially skilled job, consisting of beating clay into a metal ring, to form the all-important base to a saggar.

Unskilled it may be, but like so many relatively unskilled jobs, nonetheless economically, culturally and socially vital in the pottery industry.

The name, saggar, is a linguistic contraction of the word “safeguard,” identifying the making of the box-like containers, protecting pieces being kiln-fired from smoke, flame, gasses, and fragments, as a vital part of the process.

A great deal of pottery making in Bangladesh today, bears, probably, at least in part, a remarkable resemblance to what any visitor might have found centuries, even millennia, ago.

The work of most of the potters today is the production of basic kitchen and household ware -- and such pottery “works” are often an inheritance from the zamindar era.

They are also, probably, descendants of a line of workers in skilled communities that could reach back millennia, whether making pedestrian, unpolished earthenware kitchen pots, and pans. Unglazed, or painted and glazed, the output of most is, often, startlingly superb.

There are still many potter communities around Bangladesh and more than one bemoans the loss of the zamindars, of whom some, at least, kept the craftsmen going in the wet and humid summers when working in clay was difficult, with social and economic support.

Today, most of the pottery production of the country is either such basic earthenware, most often unglazed, but sometimes enhanced by glazing stoneware or ceramics, a mixture of stoneware and decomposed mineral based compounds.

 Whilst press pots, the millennia old, earliest type of pot, are staging some craftsmen comeback around the world, most potters in Bangladesh still work at a wheel.

Pottery production around the lands of Bangladesh, very evidently reaches back at least two and a half millennia.

At least in those lands sufficiently above the ancient seas which, archaeologists believe, as recently as two millennia or so, reached far into today’s lands.

However, firm evidence of earlier period production is limited.

Certainly, China, with whom we know these lands had connections, like most of the Ganges basin, from at least three millennia ago, and possibly even 10 or 12 millennia, have revealed evidence of pottery work up to 20,000 years ago.

And it seems unlikely that earlier inhabitants of Bangladesh, given the plentiful supply of clay, were not producing at a similarly earlier time.

The earliest known pottery output in the Indian sub-continent has, until now, been identified in the Indus Valley, with up to around 10,000 years of antiquity.

However, the Indus valley, with its ancient Harappan civilisation, was the region of the first real work undertaken in the Indian sub-continent by the resources of archaeologists.

It may well prove, eventually, that there are similarly ancient traditions closer to, or within,vv the lands of Bangladesh.

 Both hand-making and wheel-forming have been recognised in the red painted, black burnt pottery of Harappa.

So far, mostly grey painted pottery has been located in the Ganges basin, with origins from perhaps about three millennia ago, and decoration associating such works with the Shunga and Gupta periods.

These are dynasties that succeeded the Mauryan Empire of the 4th century BCE, in which we also know from archaeology that wheel use by potters became universal.

The relatively prolific pottery form known to archaeologists as Northern Black Polished Ware, originating from the pre-Mauryan period in the middle of the last millennium BCE, has certainly emerged at sites in Bangladesh, such as Mahasthangarh and Wari Bateshwar, and other sites in, or close to, Bangladesh.

In fact, its use appears to have been across the areas of Bangladesh, Northern India and Pakistan, but the location(s) of its production remain largely unclear.

The problem with archaeology in most of Bangladesh, like the entire reach of the Ganges basin, of which Bangladesh was a significant part, and was gateway to the world, is, of course, the sparse archaeological resources, and above all, the immense depth of the alluvial soils aggregated through subsequent millennia.

Since we have, in Wari Bateshwar, a large site, clearly an early trading centre, with evidence of occupation from, probably, at least the 5th millennium BCE Neolithic period, and habitation from, perhaps the 3rd millennium BCE, we may reasonably assume an early period of pottery production in or around that site.

Clearly, suitable clay is scarcely in very short supply in the alluvial plains of the country.

 Whilst Comilla is recognised as being one of the earliest centres of pottery production within the period of recorded history, perhaps explained by the array of some 40 Buddhist vihara around Mainamati, and plentiful evidence also of Hindu tradition, the many locations around the country, still in production, may well, on investigation, eventually turn out to rival it.

Predating by over 1,000 years, the period and patronage of zamindar landholders, this evidence appears to bear testimony, naturally, to the importance of a local market for typically low value of somewhat heavy weight production.

Inevitably, perhaps, the 12th century arrival of Islamic overlords saw potters amongst the skilled craftsmen they brought to work and, perhaps, to improve the skills of indigenous craftsmen.

And there seems little doubt that the glazing and decorative skills that they brought with them derives from the art that characterises Middle Eastern pottery of the period.

Today, the pottery village most easily can be accessed from Dhaka, perhaps whilst visiting Dhamrai.

Both the local brass works, with a tradition that runs back five millennia, and the early 19th century palace, although Pakistan Army damaged, still occupied by descendants of the original builder, is the village of Kakran.

A short boat ride carries the visitor to a village -- like most such communities, dedicated to the craft, usually with centuries of tradition in their work.

The largest such pottery village in the country, however, is said to be the complex of Maheshpur, in the vicinity of Barisal.

But it can safely be said, indeed, that there is scarcely a zamindar palace in Bangladesh, of which there are well over 100 sites, without some pottery close by.

Potteries such as that can be very readily found at historic Teota Palace at Manikganj, at the confluence of Jamuna and Padma rivers.

Whilst, today, most such pottery work is very traditional, unglazed kitchen ware that harks back to some of the earliest of pottery work, there continues to be a considerable collectors, market of the work of skilled pottery artists.

Such special pieces symbolise a continuation of one of the most ancient, if not, indeed, the most ancient, craft skills practised in these lands for many millennia; perhaps, even, amongst the most ancient in the world.

The undoubted importance of, if somewhat lower skilled, work of the saggar makers bottom knocker, with its origins, presumably more from the time of the industrial revolution, may well be of less antiquity than that of other pottery craft skills, but surely has a somewhat more cultural and verbal, as well as economic, appeal today!