It was three years ago, at the annual crafts bazaar organised by CCTN that I first got acquainted with Presley Ngasainao. Her sunny disposition and smiles had us walking up to her corner stall comprising of two long tables. They were filled from end to end with utensils of various shapes and sizes. What attracted me instantly was the colour and the dense shades that ranged from earthy clay to dark charcoal. The vessels gleamed as if they had been subjected to a coat of polish. On enquiring further, Presley and her sister explained why their wares were unique. They were, in fact, made entirely of stone. I found that rather astonishing because the products were light. I had expected stoneware to be quite heavy.
These vessels are made exclusively in Longpi village in the state of Manipal. That’s because the banks on either side of the river are laden with what they call weather rock and serpentinite. These rocks are crushed and mixed with water to make clay, which is then kneaded and flattened on a wooden board to complete the first process. All the work is done by women in their spare time. During the sowing, harvesting and rainy season, they take a few weeks off from making pottery. The rest of the year is spent shaping, moulding and baking this clay. The work is all done by hand; they do not use the potter’s wheel. With farming being the only other source of income, making and selling this cookware offers a sustainable livelihood for the women.
Longpi pottery was originally referred to as “Loree hamlei” and was also called royal pottery because only the nobles could afford them. The tribe that fashions this stoneware is the Tangkhul Naga tribe. Their traditional cookware comprises of the round cauldron-like pots used mainly for rice and fish curry. Over the past few years, Presley and Leishinao have travelled to several cities and interacted with food enthusiasts. This has helped them develop new designs to create a niche market for their products.
The Taj Group of Hotels found this cookware ideal for slow cooking and ordered large-sized stewing pots with lids for their rich gravies and the dum biryanis. Many more hands were required to execute large orders. A team of friends comprising of Presley, Pamshanghphi, Primrose, Ngalangam, Leishinao, Wungreiso, Thuimaya, Sochihan and Absolome walk 20 km to the river to fetch the stones in a cane basket and carry it back, on their heads. Presley’s grandparents and other elders in the village made these pots whenever they had leisure. The young ones used to help carry the stones and that’s how they developed a passion for it. Since they are all in their late 20s and early 30s, it helps them to understand the modern kitchen needs and modify their products accordingly. They recently made an entire set of dishes in a japanese influenced design for use in a Japanese restaurant.
The first pot I bought from these lovely north-eastern women was a round shallow one to make a quick stir fry. The elegance in design and functionality allows it to go easily from hob to table. Thanks to gifts from family and friends, my kitchen shelves happily bear the load of many more. This natural material retains the heat for a longer time than regular cookware. These vessels get better with age and are perfect for cooking both on low and high temperatures. The dome-like curry pot and a square wide-mouthed vessel are the ones that I use most often. They can also go into the oven for roasting or baking.
Some of the newer pieces have cane accents. Though these can be used on the stove, they are not meant for the oven. The knobs on top have an unusual curved design that sets them apart. On their last visit they also showcased tea cups and many serving platters . The minimalistic style of these plates instantly appealed to many young women. I have used them for plating snacks individually and they look stunning. Despite being available in several exhibitions, the awareness for these stone utensils hasn’t yet caught on. The makers get repeat orders from regular customers. Not only do I love cooking with these vessels but I also appreciate the work that goes into making them.
The thought that the money I spend goes towards the uplift of tribal women is heartening! As I take leave of Presley, I ask one last question. How did she get her name? She laughs as she tells me her Dad was a huge Elvis Presley fan. I smile. So was mine !
The pieces cost between Rs. 150 for a cup and Rs. 3,500 for a large pot
They are easy to clean with a mild soap solution
They need the help of men during the baking process as the firewood needs to be broken often .
They combine the rock powder with water in a ratio of 5:3 ,for strength and lightness. They do have special bamboo molds for the different shapes.
Presley and her team travel around the country about 9 times a year to participate in exhibitions.
Contact her at 09902370318 or e-mail her at email@example.com. Mobile networks don’t function when she is in the village.