Shiva Ragoonanan: feat of clay

Shiva Ragoonanan of Trinidad practises the dying art of pottery. Mirissa De Four watched him working at his wheel

Shiva Ragoonanan hard at work at his potter’s wheel, forming an urn used in Hindu pujas. Photograph by Mirissa De Four

When he became a potter at 15, Shiva Ragoonanan learned to make deyas, small earthenware lamps (they fit in your hand) which are filled with coconut oil, and which Hindus use during pujas (worship). Deyas are also lit during Divali, the festival of lights, to symbolise the triumph of good over evil and to welcome the goddess Lakshmi to worshippers’ homes.

This would once have been the busiest season at Ragoonanan’s Pottery Shop in Chase Village, in central Trinidad, since Divali falls towards the end of the year (in 2010 it’s November 5). But, he says, “Deyas are too time-consuming: you can make 200 – 300 an hour, but to make a profit, you must turn out thousands.” He adds that there are other potters who make deyas alone – but these days, retailers also import wax-filled deyas.

Ragoonanan, 34, believes pottery is a dying artform in the country: though there are four other potter’s shops in his village, young people aren’t taking it up. He thinks he may even be the youngest person in the trade.

Ragoonanan followed in the footsteps of his father (who started learning the trade at 12; he’s now 70), and his grandfather, who brought the skill with him when he migrated from India many years ago. His father, Ramkissoon, handed over the business to Shiva, the last of his four children, about six years ago.

Once a year, Ragoonanan treks northeast to the clay pits at Carlsen Field or Valencia, during the dry season (otherwise the trucks wouldn’t be able to make it back out). There he gathers the raw material he needs – 20 truckloads at a time. He stores the  huge, covered pile of clay outside his workshop.

His tools are simple: a pottery wheel (his is electric, and is worked with a hand lever); a scraper to smooth the piece as it forms; nylon thread to cut the base of the spinning piece of pottery off the wheel; and water to moisten the clay as he works. When he demonstrated how he attaches a handle to a vase, the clay was firm to the touch, yet damp enough to let him smooth the handle onto it, so that when it was dried and fired you wouldn’t see the join.
He dries the pieces in the sun, then fires his two large concrete kilns, about once a week. He doesn’t paint or glaze his work, preferring its natural colour.

Ragoonanan, who is married and the father of a newborn, is standing at his wheel by 7.30 am, usually until 4 pm. He generally supplies puja shops and florists, and may receive orders for 1,000 vases, which is why he works seven days a week. He can produce about 40 medium-sized vases an hour. He only supplies wholesale, but always makes a few extra, to display at the front of his workshop, though he doesn’t have a lot of walk-in sales.

Ragoonanan also makes plant pots, wind chimes, urns, candleholders and coalpots, among other things. Sometimes people bring him designs, such as animal figures: he’s made a fish, and a complicated elephant. “You show me the design and I will work with it.”

“You have to have real patience,” says Ragoonanan, “patience to learn, since it’s easy to lose control of the wheel. The smaller the item, the faster the speed.”

He recommends his craft, pointing out that he’s his own boss, he enjoys what he does, and it’s quite profitable. But there are no training courses in pottery: “I never really came across any, you know. I look in the papers, all over…no.” He’s too busy to train apprentices, and, he says, “To find a potter to replace me? You wouldn’t get anyone.” In Trinidad, the craft has been handed down from one generation to another. Shiva Ragoonanan’s generation may be the last.