Interview with Leela Bordia, the Queen of Jaipur Blue Pottery

 Jaipur's Leela Bordia, who founded Neerja and gave a new lease of life to Jaipuri Blue Pottery has a candid chat with me about the challenges she faced, her quest to keep the designs original yet traditional, and the dangers of keeping them from being copied and mass-produced by others.

A beautiful display corner at the Neerja showroom with some press clippings in the background.

I know, it's been a while since my last post, so sorry! it's been a hell of a month, but I am back stronger, and that's what counts!

As promised, this post is  about Neerja, and more specifically about the person at the helm of Neerja, Mrs.Leela Bordia... an amazing woman who has done so much for India's Jaipur Blue Pottery image, and made it such a sought-after possession the world over. Well, it's here finally, so without much ado, let's read the interview and gorge on the exclusive pics that Mrs. Bordia has so kindly sent to The Keybunch!


Sharon: Good Afternoon Mrs. Bordia, and thank you for sparing some time for me. I am honored to speak with you. I am curious about Neerja's early days -  I did read what's on the blog, the impact that your mother's work with Mother Theresa had on you, and how you noticed the traditional blue pottery in Jaipur and wanted to do more -  I think it is truly inspiring....is there anything you want to tell me about those early days when you started out with 4 craftspeople?
Mrs Bordia interacting with the village craftsmen
Leela Bordia: Yes, When I saw the amazing work being produced, I wanted 2 things for these craftspeople –
1.       I wanted them to be in the village – they were essentially farmers, and from generations, they were involved with creating handicrafts in their spare time to supplement their meager farming incomes. So to uproot them, would have been disastrous, and caused a breakdown of their family systems.It was therefore important for me that these people should not migrate to the cities, and this way the whole family can work together as they have done for generations.
2.       Income generation – I wanted them to have a steady source of income. There is a limit to the income they can earn alone, and the income they can earn while working with someone who buys all their work, someone who would take care of getting their work to the markets, and guaranteeing they get paid on time, and often.

Sharon:
..and I can imagine that cannot have been easy!
Leela Bordia:This was of course a challenge. Initially the crafts people did not have faith in me. They thought I was coming to them to teach them something they already knew. I never wanted to teach them. On the contrary I wanted to give them more opportunities, make utility items, etc. You have to understand that back in 1970-1980 handicrafts were just handicrafts, something fancy that people purchased. There was a limited market for them. It was only later on that bigger markets opened up, there was innovation, and today we have a whole world of opportunity for Indian handicrafts.
  

A blue pottery urn

A pretty display of knobs and accessories

Quaint blue pottery danglers
 
A console table embedded with blue pottery fixtures, and a matching mirror frame

The beautiful wall plates on display at the Neerja store

Sharon: Mrs. Bordia, I want to ask you about the design aspect -  there is a lack of originality  in design. When I read about you I was amazed at how everything you did was driven by your need to help the villagers. But design is also very important in product development, and I really love your designs. I just ordered some wall plates from you actually...How do you manage the design aspect of your business?
Leela Bordia:  We try as much as possible to stick to the original Jaipuri designs - at present we have only a 150 year history. So we tend to keep the originality. A lot of people are involved with the design aspect in Neerja – my family is a big support, sometimes I have design students interning with us, but the craftspeople are the ones who actually have the best designs.

Finishing touches on a piece

Sharon: And, is that a challenge too? To keep the designs original, yet improve and innovate?
Leela Bordia: Yes, even here we have this challenge – the moment something gets commercial acclaim, the dangers of copying arise. I never wanted to go the big commercial way. Jaipur blue pottery is from Jaipur has uniqueness. However, we do realise that even while we keep our originality, we have to improve our designs, quality, etc. It is a challenge to keep our identity intact through all this. I happy to say that till today we have had no threat about the Chinese or Srilankans copying the uniqueness of our Jaipuri designs.
A view of the Neerja store in Jaipur

What a novel design!

This is a table designed with blue pottery tiles
- gorgeous, and I wish I owned it!
And dear readers, it was an absolute pleasure and honor talking to Mrs.Leela Bordia. She is an amazing person, so down to earth and so dedicated to her craft! 

Do you know she collects blue pottery from every corner of the world? :) I am dying to see her collection,, and of course share it with you, if possible. Let’s keep our fingers crossed on that one! :)