tradition with a twist
The Prajapatis of the Newar community have been making pottery and ceramics since the time of the Malla regime in Nepal. Let’s learn how Laxmi Kumar Prajapati of Thimi Ceramics, who took over the mantle of the ceramics business from his father, has managed to preserve this age-old tradition with a bit of a twist.
When Laxmi Kumar Prajapati, Co-founder of Thimi Ceramics, first joined his father’s ceramics and pottery business, he had the least bit of a clue about the amount of precision that went into making quality earthenware. Twenty five years on, after successfully taking over from his father, Laxmi has realized that ceramic-making is not just an art but also a science. In fact, he says ceramic-making is more science and less art than some might romanticize it to be.
“In order to master the art of ceramic-making, one has to understand how clay reacts to different temperatures and humidity. Furthermore, the knowledge of composition and quantity is a must. Our ancestors learned this art through trial and error. But we had to take classes in order to understand the science of it.”
Before Laxmi and his brother Santa Kumar founded Thimi Ceramics in 1987, both brothers were advised by their father to take up classes at SOS Balgram. So in 1983, they started a two-year basic course on ceramics.
It was the culmination of a group project in the course that gave them an opportunity to participate in a special ceramic workshop. The month-long workshop titled ‘Ceramic Promotion Project’ was jointly organized by the German organization GIZ and the Government of Nepal. There, they were trained on the technical aspects of ceramic production. At the end of the workshop, the brothers received an electric wheel for standing out in a group project. The organizers of the workshop also helped them finance their own furnace for ceramic manufacturing. With this kick star, Thimi Ceramics was born in 1987.
Keeping it traditional with a twist
Laxmi and his brother founded Thimi Ceramics not just with an aim to do business but also to preserve an age-old tradition that was handed over to them by their father. “It was crucial to keep that tradition alive and have it be reflected in our products. But at the same time, we also had to make a lot of changes to traditional methods to be on par with modern-world demands,” says Laxmi.
So they started manufacturing glazed earthenware (earthenware with an additional layer of glossy material) unlike the traditional unglazed earthenware their father made. This meant that the equipment necessary for production also had to be changed. They introduced electric wheels to spin the clay and a powerful kerosene furnace to harden it or in their words ‘vitrify’ it. With no loans taken, everything was financed on their own with their family savings.
Trial and error
As the Prajapatis continued with the production and distribution of their newly-fashioned ceramics in the next years, some customers complained that their products chipped away very easily after few months of purchase.
“We were shocked to find that out and we took it very seriously. We had no idea why it was happening. For months, we tried to improve the quality by tweaking the proportion of raw materials, adjusting the temperature and observing the results,” says Laxmi, recalling the incident that strengthened their resolve to do better.
The little profit that they had made went into experimenting with the products. Many of them ended up damaged. But they did not lose hope. They were determined to make quality earthenware.
With the help of an American friend they had met during the ceramic project workshop, the brothers set out on doing more research in 2000 to improve the quality of their product. Four years later, they came up with a new and improved version of earthenware called stoneware. The new material was harder, more compact and difficult to chip. This was the first time that anyone had introduced stoneware products in Nepal.
The journey so far
With the new material in their hands and with its quality ensured, there was no looking back. Their business valuation increased to an estimated six million rupees in the next 10 years.
“The demand in the market has been good. We currently employ 20 people – locals as well as migrants from Dang and Janakpur. We supply to various handicraft outlets like Sana Hastakala, hotels like the Radisson and Hyatt besides restaurants and showrooms in the Valley. We also export to seven countries including Denmark, USA and Japan,” says Laxmi says, smiling. They regularly participate in various handicraft events and trade fairs held in Kathmandu and abroad to exhibit their products.
“Much of our marketing has been through word-of-mouth. So such trade fairs and expos have been very helpful in building our customer base. Since a majority of our products are custom-made, our customers return to us from time to time because we ensure them a high quality,” says Laxmi.
The ceramic items, on average, range from a paltry twenty rupees to a thousand rupees, depending on the material used. 75% of their products are stoneware while the remaining is earthenware for lower-end customers.
At a time when many manufacturing industries across Nepal are reeling under the effect of labor crises and brain drain, Thimi Ceramic too has felt its effects. Laxmi says the lack of skilled workers has forced them to limit their production capacity. Lack of modern machinery is another hurdle. With no laboratory or equipment to test the composition of his products, Laxmi has to rely on his experience and hunch to monitor the manufacturing process. He also says using kerosene furnace has brought him more bane than boon.
“The kerosene furnace is noisy, expensive and hard to maintain. In countries like India and China, ceramic manufacturers use electric furnaces as the temperatures inside can be precisely controlled to get the desired output. We can make our system 45% more efficient if we use electric furnaces.”
But, that would not be a viable choice, given the 12-hour crippling power cuts the nation faces. Laxmi already has problems managing power to run his electric spinners. “Power shortage is a major problem for us. All our clay spinning work depends on electricity. As we run on deadlines, any minor disruption results in failure to meet them. We are forced to rely on generators for now,” he says.
Finding the raw material they need – clay, inside the Kathmandu Valley has become extremely difficult. With many housing projects cropping up on land that was once used for clay extraction, ceramic industries have been forced to look for alternatives outside the Valley.
The government factor
Laxmi says the government can play an important role in facilitating the extraction and transport of clay from outside if not control land depletion inside the valley. “We have to import clay from India to manufacture stoneware products since that kind of clay is no longer found here. But we have to pay huge amounts at border customs to bring the products here,” he says. The government can organize more handicraft and trade fairs to boost such businesses beside financially supporting them to introduce better machinery and equipment and maximize their output and efficiency, says Laxmi.
From what Laxmi shares, the market is unlimited for ceramic industries in Nepal. What confines this progress is the lack of basic needs of any industry: power, workforce and machinery. Given that these requisites are fulfilled, there is nothing to stop such industries from flourishing. For now, the industries seem satisfied, to an extent, with their progress. With a focus on quality rather than on quantity, they have managed to capitalize on a loyal customer base built carefully over the years.
Take Thimi Ceramics as an example.