Leela Brings the Art of Business to Artisans, Preserves Dying Blue Pottery for Posterity | Jaipur News

Her date with the Blue Pottery might be a coincidence, but she attributes it to her compassionate heart. Born in Kolkata and raised there as a child, Leela Bordia often accompanied her mother to visit orphanages run by Mother Teresa. When she moved to Jaipur after her marriage, her kind heart took her to the nearby slums and villages in search of destitute and disadvantaged people.
“I wanted to do social work. It took me to slums and villages near Jaipur. I met people living in unsanitary settlements. In the villages, people indulged in blue pottery ungracefully because they couldn’t find buyers, nor did they know how to refine the art and modernize the products,” says Leela.
After some initial research into blue pottery, she thought she could work with the artisans and help them live a dignified life. “I thought that if they found work in their villages, they could live there and not sell their land and migrate to the cities. The blue pottery offered this opportunity. Since they knew the art, I thought they would be comfortable with experimenting, innovating, and adopting new skills,” recalls Leela.
Although blue pottery has a Turkish-Persian origin and was brought to India by the Mughals, it enjoyed royal patronage in Jaipur since the time of Sawai Ram Singh II. In modern times, the craft has been kept alive by the late patrons Rajmata Gayatri Devi and Kamala Devi Chattopadhya, who headed the Indian Handicrafts Union and the famous artist Kripal Singh Shekhawat. But demand was limited to the elite class.
During her visits to the villages, Leela discovered that the pieces were limited to large vases, plates and pots. She tried to convince them that new designs, more refinement and utility will attract buyers and their financial conditions will improve.
At first, they didn’t trust him. One fine morning, a Lala Ram from the village of Kot Jewar showed up and agreed to work with her designs. “After Lala Ram, others joined one by one. I designed new products like ceramic beads and buttons, which were the first in the industry. But very quickly I was confronted with the problem of the sale. Faith and John, the founders of Anokhi, were known to me. I approached them. They helped me find French buyer Paul Comar. It was not an ideal start. Paul’s first order with me did not reach the desired quality. But he didn’t lose faith in me. He guided me on quality and gave me orders for other items,” recalls Leela.
The business she started with Rs 500 in 1978 began to grow, leading her to establish Neerja International in 1980. As she participated in fairs and exhibitions, her visibility increased.
To meet the demand, Leela has set up manufacturing units in Kot Jewar and other villages on the road to Agra. The product line has expanded to include knobs, tiles, lamps, coasters, utensils, bathrobes, and more. Until today, she says all of her products are handcrafted and painted. Although the process is rigorous, it fetches more than four times the rates at which machine-made products are sold.
“But more than money, preserving heritage and creating a sense of pride among local artisans has been my passion. Every piece of mine is handcrafted and painted. In order to enrich the artistic and aesthetic content, I visited several countries and shaped some of their designs in local creativity. Besides blue and turquoise, which are typical colors of blue pottery, I introduced yellow, red and others that I learned from Mexico and other countries,” says Leela.
Speaking of challenges, Leela says every business brings challenges, but as a woman, she never encountered any because she was dedicated to what she did.
“If a woman can effectively manage a house, she can also lead the country. I received support from everyone in my family. Although my pursuit of blue pottery kept me going, I never neglected my duties as a daughter-in-law, wife, mother and grandmother,” says Leela.
Leela’s more than four-decade journey in preserving and promoting blue pottery heritage not only contributed to her obtaining a Jaipur GI (geo-indication) label, but also convinced the CBSE to introduce a chapter on it. “Most likely from next year the program will be introduced in grades 6 to 8,” she says.
Blue pottery is a labor-intensive business and income is low. From the start, Leela says, she focused on social upliftment and heritage preservation.
“Look, how many people from which socio-economic background work with me. In Kot Jewar alone, 200 people are engaged in the art. More than 500 people work for this company in different process value chains. Hundreds of students, Indian and foreign, have completed internships with me. Some of them might become entrepreneurs one day, which will help the art grow,” says Leela.

Christopher S. Washington