Sunday, February 27, 2011

*239. THE ART OF THE KURAN

GONE TO POTS! Clay pots sold by street hawkers in a neighborhood market, a common sight in rural villages all over the Philippines, including Pampanga. Utilitarian earthenware vessels were indispensable staples of everyday life, used primarily in cooking and storing food and water. Ca. 1910.

A favorite plaything from our childhood was a set of little clay kitchenware consisting of a small kalang (clay stove), kuran (cooking pot), tapayan (water jar), banga (water pot) and matching clay plates and tumblers. “Kurang-kurangan”, we called these glazed, functional ware—we actually used them to cook rice and simple viands when we played house in my sister’s ‘bale-balayan’. These earthenware toys were found for sale everywhere—in front of the big church after Masses, in public markets. But to my mind, the best ‘kurang-kurangans’ were those sold during fiesta time, which came in all sorts of colored glazes and finished with painted designs. There were more pieces to choose from, and I remember building an extensive set which we kept in the ‘banggera’ of our play house.

Making pottery was an early art adeptly practiced in old Pampanga. Earthenware vessels were known in our pre-colonial history, and shards have been found in Porac, Lubao, Guagua and Candaba that date back to the 13th to 16th centuries, a period of active trade with our Asian neighbors. Some have been dated to the Metal Age of Philippine pre-history. Indeed, places like Balanga (Bataan) and Iba (Zambales) were derived from pottery terms—and at least one barrio in Mabalacat bore the old name of “Iba”—which, according to local history, was the home of many “maniba”, or clay pot makers.

The basic pot that Kapampangans know is called “kuran”, used for cooking rice. Variations of this vessel include the “balanga”, which has a wider mouth and is used for cooking dishes. For storing water or other liquids, the "banga” is used which has a higher rim. There were, of course, other creations of clay that were used for other purposes like the bibingkaan (round clay deep dishes for cooking rice cakes), pasu (flower pots), tuliasi (2-handled pot), tapayan (water dispenser), oya (rimless jars) and lariu (bricks). In all cases, the same ‘kuran’ technology is employed in their manufacture.

The process of making these earthenware vessels is long and tedious, with many steps involved. First, clay (pila) and sand material had to be sourced from swamps (pinac), open clay fields, riverbanks or even termite mounds. The materials are mixed by hand, foot or by machine. A lump of clay is then prepared for molding, which could be done in several ways—by tampi or pukpuk (by paddling, for ordinary kurans), gilingan ( by foot-powered turntable, ideal for tall vessels) and by moldi (by casting, as in the case of bricks).

Finishing involves incising designs, cleaning, smoothening the surface of the pot and slipping, in which a fine solution of clay and sand is applied to the pot to give it a distinct color (e.g. black sand or ‘kapalangan’ mixed with clay will give the inside of pots a desirable black color, while ‘balintawak’-red pottery is a result of using a red-slip solution of fine red earth and water. When the pots are dried, they are ready for final polishing (buli) using a whetstone or a shell. The last step is firing, through an open fire pit (dapugan) or a closed kiln (tamban). The pots are then dried on a bed of hay, away from direct sunlight.

Today, the art and technology of the kuran is slowly vanishing. Gone are the days when you could find pottery stalls practically everywhere in Pampanga—from Calibutbut-Telabastagan to the barrios of Floridablanca, Sasmuan, Lubao and Tabun in Pampanga. Even the ‘kurang-kurangans’ of my childhood past are getting harder to find—the last time I saw a set was in this year’s Mabalacat fiesta, offered by a vendor whose wares came from Pangasinan. The pieces were very crude and garishly painted with lacquer—which meant that you could not possibly cook in them lest your guests die of lead poisoning!

Happily, the town of Santo Tomas still maintains a flourishing pottery industry, unlike nearby Apalit which once had a dominant pottery business. True, there are more decorative pieces of pottery now than kitchen earthenware—made obsolete by metal pots and pans—but the creative mangkukuran of Sto. Tomas should still be given credit, for in their deft hands, the traditional art of the ‘kuran’ survives.

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