Thimi Pottery: Breathing New Life

Features Issue 76 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

State of The Art

For decades in Nepal, Nepal’s ancient town of Thimi has remained the not-so-secret hub of not just culture, with its numerous temples and various annual religious extravaganzas, but also of arts and crafts. Thimi is a typical Newari town, a half hour drive east of Kathmandu, on the Bhaktapur road. Pottery in Nepal is synonymous with Thimi and its people. The skills of these Thimi potters have been passed on from generation to generation and for a lot of these people, it is what puts rice on their plates. Here, there are entire families that trace their heritage side by side with the occupation of pottery.

But, even as the world seems to grow increasingly interested in ancient art forms such as pottery, it is sadly an element of Nepali culture that has not been encouraged much by the government. Nor is the old pottery very popular in Nepal’s modern households. The reasons for this might be unclear, but that has not stopped some to actually do something regarding this ancient art form; rather, their ideas for modernizing it are beginning to take shape. In this article, we meet three such people who come from different walks of life and have somehow managed to converge in Thimi and are doing what they can to make a much needed difference.

The pottery scene in Nepal suffers from a severe case of repetitiveness. Every year at global and regional exhibitions, Nepal manages to showcase works that it showcased the year before and the year before that. Resistance to change by traditional potters and the denial of promoters of the art form tell us that maybe it is time for a refreshing change. Such indifference could very well result in the loss of a valuable and unique Nepalese culture. Evolved design is not a loss of the art form, but an improvement on it. The many attenuated echoes of one much exposed form of the art, showcased time and again, is what may strangle the life out of the pottery scene. Change is what drives design forward, and is what needs to be taught to both the potters and their promoters. This is where designer Mike Krajniak comes into the picture.

Fantastic Failures: Mike Krajniak
An explosion of art catches me off-guard as we enter Mike Krajniak’s home. His house is full of new ideas; ideas still in their birth pangs, screaming for attention from every corner of every room. It is a studio where he draws and paints and tries out a fraction of the million ideas that he seems to have every other minute. It is a make shift factory where hired help shape his ideas into wood. It is full of imperfections, something he loves and strives to achieve in each of his design ideas. They are laid out all over the place.

Mike Krajniak first came to Nepal in 1982 prior to which he was working in Bangladesh. In Nepal he works closely with the Association of Craft Producers (ACP), an organization that helps unemployed women who have very little professional skill to earn a decent living to support themselves. Mike’s first visit to Nepal was in association with this group and over the years he has been associated with a large number of such non-profit organizations, offering them his time and skills. He, along with some other people, started the popular handicrafts store Dhukuti in Kupondole.

“In ’82, there was a huge push for the development of crafts in Nepal,” says Mike, as we delve right into the topic of arts and crafts. “We were lucky to be here at a time when the idea of crafts as a medium for empowering women was still very much in its starting phase. That’s when I got involved with ACP-Dhukuti.”

Using his plethora of skills and ideas where they are needed the most, Mike is helping potters in Thimi, with some of whom he has forged strong friendships, to bring much needed variation in their designs and techniques. “I am but a small fish in the local scene here, but I will not stand to see such a valuable piece of Nepalese culture become extinct. I will do what I can,” says Mike.
The huge array of ceramics he has ollected as samples and decorative items for his house are pulled out one by one to reinforce each point he makes. Misshaped, unevenly glazed, cracked, broken, uneven, discolored, Mike calls each of these pieces, “fantastic failures.” And rightfully so, since each of these failures has taught Mike and his colleagues about what works and does not work for them. Pointing towards a small, misshapen olive-green cup, Mike says that while everyone else groaned with disappointment when they saw what it looked like, he was distracted and excited at the same time by the unique color achieved. Pointing to a line of navy-colored coffee mugs on his windowsill, in which he has planted cacti, he points to small pinholes on their surface. While these are rejected pieces from the customary point of view, Mike is of the view that it does not necessarily have to be so.

Mike is from the school of thought (and design) that celebrates imperfections the pinholes, the discoloring, the non-uniform surfaces and the irregular shapes of things. His love for the imperfect comes across as an understanding and a celebration of life itself. Absolute perfection, in his view, is a thing of the past. The imperfections in art, as in life, are what make things special. Small blemishes achieve a kind of art that is like no other. But getting this idea across to people is not easy. “And so I know that this will take not a lot of money, but a lot of time,” says Mike, with a smile.

“Some people already have the technology and the know-how to make the new designs and bring them into the market. But they do not make these new designs out of a fear of being copied, but out of a feeling that they might not be able to afford it,” Mike adds. This is only natural from the point of view of a producer who does not want to lose capital, but without taking a risk and putting the stuff out there, nothing moves. “It disturbs me to see the state of the arts here. What I am proposing is not so revolutionary that people gasp at the mention of it. The skills are there and the material is there, too,” Mike explains. It seems what’s missing is a mind open to ideas and the patience to watch as the process develops.

Using old materials and techniques and putting a twist on them by adding a new chemical here and an improved method there is all Mike is trying to do with the potters in Thimi. “If you are not the person your father was, why would you buy something that was created during and by his generation,” says Mike, emphasizing his point that Nepal is trying to sell design that is outdated. “What I propose is this: Don’t lose the soul of the art. Don’t lose the essence and authenticity of something that was made in Nepal. Instead, make it such that people in New York, for example, might do a double take when they come across them in store displays,” says Mike, clearly excited at the prospect of a global market. But despite saying this, the target for him is to see locals buying the pottery.

“The reason people do not buy and use traditional clay utensils is because they are not durable or very strong,” says Mike. As we come to the end of our talk, he adds, “What we need to do is to change the way of making them so that they are more durable and dependable, so that they are readily bought by locals. Unless locals buy this stuff and appreciate it, there is no way we can even think about selling it elsewhere.”

Besides dabbling in pottery, furniture (new and old prototypes literally fill up his house), making candles and doing photography, Mike has also put his psychotherapy degree to use by organizing workshops for students and teachers, in association with St Xavier School. He has worked under and been funded by organizations such as World Neighbors, the Ford Foundation and Bread for the World during the time that he has spent here. Mike was also active in an alcoholics recovery program under World Vision in association with Patan Hospital. Besides this, the man loves old Westerns and loves to unwind by either painting or by listening to classical and new age music. Here’s wishing him all the best for all that he is doing for Nepali culture.

 Solutions Benefiting Life: Hari Govinda Prajapati and Jon Sege
Clay is clay whether you use it for making pots or any other innovation. Traditional clay vessels have been used in households all over Nepal from ancient times to store water. These vessels are mostly used to keep water cool. In older days, a small piece of silver was dropped into such vessels, in the belief that silver could ‘clean’ the water and that clean water played a vital role in the health and development of a community.

In present day Thimi, some youthful people have teamed up to make a difference in the lives of locals by bringing together this time-honored knowledge of cleaning water with what Thimi has always been known for, its pottery. The sight of red clay water filters drying out in the Thimi sun makes for a great symbol for this particular story. It represents the use of clay in household items as has been done for centuries not only in the ancient town of Thimi, but also all over the country. It also represents a fresh, young idea that actually makes a lot of sense, economically and health-wise.Hari Govinda Prajapati, the Program Director of Solutions Benefiting Life (SBL) in Nepal and Jon Sege, a young exchange student from the US volunteering at the facility, gave us a guided tour of the factory and the surrounding area.

SBL is a non-profit organization with headquarters in Sudbury, Massachusetts, USA. It is a member of the WHO network and has partnered with reputable organizations such as Rotary International, Potters for Peace, the Ashoka Trust and Barakat. SBL currently promotes low cost household water systems that can be made easily by potters anywhere, as the basic principle of these filters and simple pottery items is very similar.

The filter is made entirely of clay and has a high water flow density. The chemical composition of the clay helps kill waterborne bacteria that, in turn, helps eliminate many water borne diseases. These water systems are very easy to maintain. SBL in Nepal is focused on eliminating health threats from drinking water in a cheap and locally-available way; but, it is also interested in ensuring that members of the community understand how water can affect their health, and how they can use local materials to improve their economic conditions.

Besides developing a simple, healthy and effective water filter system, SBL also promotes them as a part of a micro-business enterprise through various women’s organizations. It has also collaborated with local clubs and schools.

Hari Govinda Prajapati is very soft spoken and appears genuinely interested and enthusiastic about what SBL is doing for the community. Hari has more than 25 years of experience in pottery and is considered one of the best potters in Nepal. Hari has attended conferences in Japan, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. His experience in non-profit organizations and clubs is seen as a valuable asset to SBL.

Hari rightfully gives off the impression that he knows what he is talking about and where he is headed with his ideas. His enthusiasm shows in the way he presents his ideas with clarity and confidence, taking time to explain each and every detail of his work to us. Hari moves about the small factory behind the small shop he has set up in Thimi in hurried strides as if worried that he might miss something of importance.

He explains to us the step by step process by which these filters are made. Even his wife chips in for a bit to assist him in demonstrating the progress that they have achieved. Strewn all over the factory premises are discarded models of the filter that they tried out before finally coming up with the current model. “We hire local help, mostly unemployed women, to help us make these filters,” Hari says, as he supervises the work of two woman employees making filter parts.

The idea of these SBL filters is very similar to the ‘candle’ model filter. While the ‘candle’ takes a lot of time to filter the water, the flow rate of SBL filters is much higher. The water is filtered through the base of the SBL filter, between the two compartments of the cylindrical water system. The water is poured into the top compartment and it flows in to the lower compartment permeating through the base in between.

“The base of the first compartment is immersed in a solution of colloidal silver before it is fired in the furnace. The silver permeates and locks in with the clay particles of the base,” says Jon, explaining to us how the filtration actually takes place. For the past 2-3 months Jon, a 20-year old student of Environmental Geo-Science at Boston College, in Massachusetts, has been going to local schools to teach young and old alike about the benefits of these filters. “Students just seem to listen more to him, as he is a foreigner,” adds Hari with a smile.

Jon is interested in human development and environmental health, particularly water-borne diseases and water quality analysis. He is also interested in the way people’s opinions, culture and religious beliefs affect the way they interact with their environment. So it does not come as a surprise when he explains that he came all the way to Nepal to study Tibetan-Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan culture and language, and Nepali religion and culture. He even surprises me by speaking a little Nepali. His enthusiasm and indisputable interest in what he is doing here seem very obvious, as he helps Hari in explaining the workings of the factory.

“I was interested in Nepal because of its diverse people and beautiful geographic environment. It also seemed like an opportunity I would never be able to find again in my life,” says Jon, who has already made up his mind that he is going to come back soon. He adds: “My time with Solutions Benefiting Life has been incredibly valuable and educational. The organization is very science-oriented and practical, but at the same time addresses many different aspects of community life such as health and overall well-being.”

Jon is all praise for the person he worked so closely with during his time in Nepal. “Hari Govinda Prajapati,” he says, “is a very competent leader who is truly concerned about his community.” Jon also mentions that it was inspiring to see so many people in the community working to improve education, health and human life. ”Nepali people seem to be genuinely concerned about their neighbors and never fail to help one another,” says Jon, from what he has seen. He adds that he met many dedicated volunteers who worked very hard simply to help their communities. It is this spirit of bounteousness and helpfulness that he hopes to take back with him to his own country.

Young minds like these, and undoubtedly the countless many that we have yet to hear about, are breathing new life into a dying piece of important Nepali culture. Innovative ideas like those of Mike along with fresh ventures like SBL are sure to make a difference and make people pay heed to the message they are sending out. Nepali culture can and will be preserved by Nepalis. It is our responsibility as buyers to support their efforts. It is the least we can do for preserving the rundown state of pottery in Thimi.

Mike Krajniak can be contacted at See also
For more information on SBL, see