Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Into the pot

The visit of a traditional Burmese clay pot factory in central Myanmar. 

Ceramics in the kiln in New Nyein, a village famous for its pot-making traditions. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar TimesCeramics in the kiln in New Nyein, a village famous for its pot-making traditions. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar Times

According to U Mya Maung, there will demands for ceramic and clay pots for as long as there will be humans breathing on this Earth. “They are the best for water storage,” says the 81-year-old owner of a factory in Nwe Nyein in Kyauk Myaung township.

When U Mya Maung was younger, everybody in Myanmar used the heavy shinny pots. Nowadays, most the ceramic wares were replaced by Chinese models or pots shifted to more malleable material such as plastic, steel or aluminium.

An employee maneuvering a giant clay pot in New Nyein. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar TimesAn employee maneuvering a giant clay pot in New Nyein. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar Times

U Mya Maung has diversified its business. At the entrance of his factory, busts of General Aung San stand alongside toys and vases.

There are several areas in Myanmar that are well-known for the quality of their pottery: New Nyein, Shwe Khun, Shwe Tiek and Malar in the Sagaing Region, Bago and Twante near Yangon.

Nwe Nyein, where U Mya Maung’s business is, is home to the largest glaze factories in the whole country. The biggest have over 100 workers.

The pots are cooking in the kiln for two consecutive days. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar TimesThe pots are cooking in the kiln for two consecutive days. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar Times

U Mya Maung started entered clay pot making when he was 15 years old. At 25 he had his own oven. Now he has 50 employees including pot makers, sales men, and fire master.

“Pottery is my life” says 24-year old Ko Two Naing as he manoeuvres one of the giant pots used to store water or make fish paste. “I don’t want to rich. It is enough for me of making pots and living peacefully,” he says with a smile on his face. He earns at least K6,000 per a day. A rather decent salary in these parts where the average salary is K3,500.

Pot making in New Nyein. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar TimesPot making in New Nyein. Nandar Aung/The Myanmar Times

It takes sometimes a whole day and three people to make a big pot.

All of the pots are hand-made, which has unexpected advantage. “The hands of the workers here are softer than celebrities’,” quips U Ohm Maung, one of the managers, “all they touch is water and clay”.

Earth, water and fire

The history of the ceramics in this area started under the Alaungpaya dynasty (1752-60), when it was found that the region was resources rich.

Two sorts of clay are used to make pot - the “red copper” and the “yellow lime”- the two of them can be found near the Nwe Nyein village. The two are then mixes together with water and worked by hand.

Water is an important ingredient, so is fire. U Tin Maung Thein is a “fire master”, he looks after the oven. “The kiln [the chamber where the pots harden] can hold 90 large pots at the time,” he says. “It takes two days for the clay pot to cook, and another two for them to cool down in the kiln”

The glazing process is also U Tin Maung Thein’s responsibility. All the minerals needed for it are obtained locally. Lava stones are from Shan State, bluestone is from Monywa and Bago regions and chalk are from Pyinmanar.

After the pots are loaded into the kiln, the fire workers close the kiln with bricks and then start the fire with truckloads of wood.

U Tin Maung does not leave his fire for a minute. “If the kiln is not at the precise temperature, it can destroy the pots”. The fire is stoked for two consecutive days, at night, workers take turns.

Pot for the youngsters

U Mya Maung is not afraid of the lack of demand, but he is concerned by the lack of enthusiasm among the young generation. “I have so many grand kids,” he says, “but none of them are not interested in taking over the family business.”

U Mya Maung is probably right, there will demands for ceramic and clay pots as long as there will be humans breathing on this earth. Wether he will find someone to pass his knowledge to is another question.