Pottery at RASTA, Wayanad, Kerala

A few weeks ago we volunteered at an organisation called RASTA in Wayanad, Kerala. This is not an organisation for dread-locked, weed-smoking rastafarai, rather one to help the local tribes of the area. RASTA stands for: Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement.

Mrs Omana, the director of RASTA, showed us many of their activities. They focus on empowering women, especially widows, and farmers through specific training. Mrs Omana has fingers in many pies. The pies range from: a tailoring workshop on campus for widows, several acres of farm land, a shitake mushroom growing space, programs for children, and a pottery operation.

Amal is in charge of the pottery. He also teaches us yoga every morning, which is an unusual experience as he is deaf and mute, so the classes are conducted in silence. I have never seen anyone so bendy... some of the postures he gets us to try are just ridiculous. I have helped him out a few days in the pottery workshop. The workshop space is a large, open hexagonal room. Construction on it was begun years ago, intended as a new teaching wing, but the government cut RASTA's funding, so it has remained unfinished. The roof is open in one spot, vegetation reclaiming the space underneath, with bats nesting in concrete crevices. No problems with the smokey firings though.

Amal makes a range of clay products, from tiles to wall hangings, to necklaces and bracelets. Jewellery is the focus of most of his activities. They get sold mostly to the volunteers who come stay here and some to visitors: there is a little shop on the site.

First order of business: preparing the clay. Amal's clay sits in a giant heap and looks a lot like bedrock. 

First he bashes these large pieces up, then sieves the small pieces with a sieve to end up with a fine dust.

Lauren helped with this too.

Then he adds water to make a slip and pours it into plaster molds.


The next day the clay has dried out enough to remove from the molds. Suprisingly quick process because it is so hot here.

Definitely not Ghandi.

Squish it up, kneed it up!

Ready to work. The clay was plastic enough for hand building/making small beads and jewellery but would have been too short to throw with. It was a lot of effort to get this much clay too.

Once the clay was prepped, Amal taught me his prayer bead making technique. Firstly you have to make some balls. Tiny balls of the same size.

One, two, three... one hundred and eight.

Easier said than done.

For a prayer bead necklace you need 108 of these balls, but if you make too many at once then they dry out, so you have to make 10/15 and move on to the next step: poking a hole in your balls.

Gently does it.

He made it look so easy.
Then, remove the excess clay with a razor blade, whilst the ball is still on the stick.

And that's it, pretty much. You just keep doing that. Over and over again. Amal had the patience of a saint. I couldn't hack it. Making 50 or so before wanting to drown myself. They are so fiddly, and you's be suprised how difficult it is to get the balls the same size. He was an utter perfectionist and many of mine didn't make the grade.

As you can see, my mind turned swirly.

The next day he showed me some methods of pendant making. His main tools are a wet rag, a stainless steel knife, and a ball point pen.

I left before seeing them finished, but Amal indicated that he fires these small pieces in the centre of the room, in a covered pan, over a fire... pretty low tech but it does the trick.

The kiln.

Amal also makes incredible wood and stone carved sculptures. He showed me some pictures, but unfortunately I didn't get a chance to go over and see any of them in the flesh. Next time!