One day when I decided to visit the ‘Peshawar Pottery’ showroom, I called Mr. Rauf Seemab, the proprietor to expect me. I remembered the time when pottery casserole dishes were quite the rage, and had decided to replenish my stock. A visit to the pottery showroom used to be a positive must for any one visiting Peshawar. Mr. Seemab says that Peshawar pottery is the only place that makes glazed pottery in the NWFP.
Driving down the Qissa khwani Bazaar and turning right towards the Bazaar Misgaraan (copper bazaar), I had to slow down. The entrance to Peshawar Pottery can only be found if u spot the small sign that proclaims its existence, and the path to it lies beyond a tiny slit between the copper shops. I was relieved to find that, although weather beaten, the sign still stood there.
Walking through the narrow lane, between the shops selling colourful bottles and bags of God-alone-knows-what, it felt as though I was going back in time. The twentieth century had by-passed this quaint little lane.
Mr. Seemab, whose family has been in the pottery business for three generations was waiting for me. Seeing my interest, he was only too pleased to tell me the story of the introduction of glazed pottery to Peshawar.
It all started during the 1800s, when an enterprising potter named Usman came to Peshawar. He had learned the art of glazing clay pottery in Kashmir. Setting up an oven in Mohalla Khudadad (off Qissa Khwani bazaar), he went into business supplying Peshawarites with beautifully glazed bowls and ‘tabakhs’ for their tables. A tabakh is a large community curry dish that is still used in some villages. The whole family sits around it at meal times, dipping their bread into the curry.
Until then, only unglazed clay pottery used to be made in the villages surrounding Peshawar. Usman’s glazed pottery was soon in great demand among the elite of Peshawar and his monopoly lasted until he had to employ workers from the local population.
One of his workers, a potter by caste, soon picked up the tricks of the trade. After learning all about glazing he set up a pottery kiln near Aasia Gate (one of the many gates in the wall surrounding the old Peshawar city. Refining the methods of his master, his pottery soon outstripped that made by Usman. Having been deserted by his clientele, Usman finally had to close down his business, leaving the Asia Gate potter as the only producer of glazed Peshawar pottery.
It was around this time that Mr. Rauf Seemab’s grandfather, Khalifa Mahmud, immigrated from Sind (a southern province of Pakistan). Setting up a retail shop in Qissa Khwani bazaar, he gradually built up a reputation for being the man to go to if u wanted to buy the best glazed pottery. The only problem he faced was that he was at the mercy of the whims of the Aasia Gate potter. Eventually, when demand outstripped the irregular supply, Khalifa Mahmud decided to set up his own pottery works.
It was in 1860 that Khalifa Mahmud set up what we now know as the ‘Peshawar Pottery’. It was the largest pottery factory Peshawar had seen and he made sure he employed only the very best potters available. It was also around this time that the War of Independence had been squashed, and the British Crown had taken over the administration of the Indian colonies from the East India Company or Company Bahadur. British Memsahibs arrived by the shipload and they thronged the little pottery shop in the Qissa Khwani, giving their own designs to be copied by the local potters. Business thrived as never before!
After the death of Khalifa Mahmud, his son took over the business, which later passed on to Rauf Seemab. The next high period of the Peshawar Pottery came about when the Canadians were building the Warsak Dam during the 50’s; and when there was an American airforce base at Badaber during the late 50’s and early 60’s. no sooner were new designs given to the potters than they were copied to perfection. No sooner were they copied than, they were snapped up by the large expatriot community in Warsak and Badaber.
Today, Peshawar pottery has fallen on hard times. Mr. Rauf Seemab traces his dwindling fortunes to the Afghan civil war that has discouraged tourists from coming to Peshawar. He says his business is basically oriented to the western tourist and only about one percent depends on the local shopper. Mr Seemab has had to close down his factory and send home his potters. The potters have now set up small pottery works in their villages. Hadning over his moulds to them, Mr Seemab now depends on potters from outlying villages as far as Kamra to fill his orders.
I was surprised when Mr Seemab said that the glazing technique followed today is more or less the same as was introduced by Usman the Kashmiri. One difference, however, is that now white clay from Mianwali is used instead of the indigenous red clay. Yet, it seems that they have lost Usman’s old recipe for the glaze itself. It is now bought from dealers in Gujranwala who make it up from secret ingredients. Peshawar pottery is either brown, blue or green. Cobalt is added to the glaze to colour the pottery blue, manganese oxide is used for brown pottery and copper oxide for the green variety. Besides these basic colours, mixing one or more in varying quantities results in new shades.
I asked Mr. Seemab about the process of making pottery. He said that the white potter’s clay is bought from dealers in Gujranwala, who grind the Mianwali white clay with glass and soap-stone from Hazara. After it is shaped, the pottery is baked at 1200 degrees Farenheit; a temperature lower than china, but higher than that needed to fire red clay pottery.
Another difference today is that using moulds and presses instead of the potter’s wheel ensures uniformity of size and shape. Explaining the process of pottery making, Mr. Seemab said that thinned clay is poured into a mould. Some of it clings to the mould, while the excess is poured out. Plates and other flat dishes are made in a press. For this, the clay has to be of a thicker doughy consistency. Since the pieces are too soft to be handled once out of the mould/press, they are dried in the sun before being fired in the oven. Once out of the oven they are sanded down and then glazed before being fired once again.
When wood fired ovens were used, the rule of thumb controlled the temperature. This resulted in many pieces being destroyed, as the temperature was sometimes either too high or too low. If ovens are too hot, pottery becomes crooked or stick together. If too low, they crack. Gas fired ovens now cut down on the trial and error, resulting in less pottery being damaged.
Modern kilns that are used in Gujrat, Gujranwala and Sialkot are larger and more cost effective. While cutting down on wastage, they also fire the pottery more evenly.
Mr. Seemab’s drop in business has left him without the necessary finances to install these kilns. In the resulting Catch-22 situation he loses more business and cannot compete with the pottery plants that use the latest technology. Yet, the items I saw at his showroom were enchanting. I am sure it would be worth anyone’s while to find their way through the winding 18th century ‘gali’ (alleyway) to visit the Peshawar Potteries.
The dusty shelves hold some lovely vases, urns, casserole dishes, cookie jars and many, man more items. Designs have accumulated over the years and Mr. Seemab still remembers who had given him which design. It is a rewarding experience to wander about the shop.
Picking out the best of the pest from a wide range of items, you will always have something to remind you of your visit to the oldest pottery shop in Peshawar!
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(Postscript: since this article was written, Pace, a large superstore in Lahore discovered Peshawar Pottery and Mr.Seemab was a happier man until the store burned down!