Naorem Ongbi Neelamani Devi
- Padmashree Awardee - 2007 in the field of Pottery -

By Donny Luwang Meisnam *

Neelamani Devi emerges as an artist of great individually from the inherited collective tradition of pottery making in Manipur. Moreover her fine understanding of the conventional techniques of preparing the clay, giving shape to pots burnishing or patterning them and finally setting up the kiln and firing the ware, has also given her the legitimate freedom to manoeuvre this knowledge to attain creative deviations.

Born on 1st September, 1938 at Thongjao Keithel Leikai, Thoubal District of Manipur, Neelamani Devi from the age of 5 (five) started to show interest in pottery and got involved in the field of pottery which make her the most talented and famous artist throughout the country and abroad. She got her initial training from her mother itself who was also a pottery maker. Daughter of Late Kharaibam Devasingh Singh and Kharaibam Ongbi Sanajaobi, she lost her parents at the very early stage. But never loose her spirit and come long way to in the track of success and today she is claimed as most incredible pottery maker.

Polishing a finished pot by Neelamani Devi

In 1960 she was trained at Somthal Pargana, Bihar in Pottery under the sponsorship of the 'Khadi and Gram Udyog Mandal' Bihar. After successful completion of her training, she worked as a demonstrator in the Directorate of Industries Government of Manipur. She left government job after few years and returned to her village to do something for villagers.

She established 'Pottery Training Cum Production Centre' in 1966 with a view to imparting improvised modern methods of pottery among the poor rural women of surrounding villages to enable them to produce more attractive designs to generate sustainable income from their products. She designed 'Mother-Clay' and because of her tireless efforts, the poor women of the village were able to produce standardized and modern products which won international recognition for Thongjao Village.

Neelamani Devi's pots, though meant for containing mundane things such as water, dried fish or food grains, seem to be created as if 'muscle by muscle' are developed by burnishing inside as well as out, and have the quality of living flesh heaving and breathing.

A cluster of these timeless pots as they receive the first rays of the rising sun, conjures up the image of the womb mentioned in the myth of creation of Manipur potters. As one watches Neelamani Devi engrossed in shaping her pots or carefully burnishing, one is reminded of Goddess Panthoibi who was taught the art of pottery by Ima Leimaren Shidaba before she had disappeared forever.

In recognition of her artistry in pottery film director Mani Kanl produced a documentary film in 1986 titled 'Mittee aur Manab'. Her pottery products formed a scene in Mahabharat T.V. serial as well as first three French T.V. Mahabharata. Another documentary film on her pottery works was produced by Shri Aribam Shyam Sharma renowned Manipuri Film Director.

She has participated in the festival on India Exhibition 'Forms of Mother Earth' at Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art in La Jolla, California, 'Autumn Festival of India' in Sweden in the Ethnographical Museum of Sweden featuring Crafts Exhibition and Demonstration entitled 'Five Indian Artisans' and in this event Neelamani Devi was one of the five artisans displaying her skills as a potter to the Swedish public.

Making a pot at Mingei International Museum in La Jolla, California

Demonstrated the terra-cotta art of pottery in Hyogo Perfectual Museum of Modern Art, Kobe, Japan titiled 'The Art of the Adivasi', participated in the demonstration of the Indian Adivasi Art Exhibition at Tobacco and Salt Museum in Tokyo, Tongen Museum in Shirane, Yamanasi, Saitama perfectual modern Museum in Saitame and Mithila Museum in Tokamachi and Nigata.

Neelamani Devi have been selected as an instructors of all India Socially Useful Productive Works in Lalit Kala C.C.R.T. New Delhi and she has demonstrated about terracotta pottery in the prominent Museum like Delhi, Bombay, Rajasthan, Bihar, Kerala, Bangalore, Delhi, etc. And in her thought-process - there is no improvemenet for those who does not work hard. This was the way of life that make her became very popular with her special hand's dexterity in pots making and in efficiency of polishing the earthen pots of various designs.

Before her marriage from 1953, she began to make a number of Pun (water pots) such as Kharung ( Liquor pots) Chengphu (rice pot), Khujai (water pot), Sanabun (water pot of special design), Isaiphu (water jar), Ngari Kharung (dry fish seasoning earthen pot), Uyan (Utensil). Kwagok (pots for betal leaves), Hidak Phu (Hookah), Irrigation pipe, Smokeless Chulha, lantern hock etc with her terracotta big pots only with her hands and other smaller pots on knee in the traditional method of pottery.

Through the transparent skin of Neelamani's pots one sees the muscular structures and its internal weave of tissues carefully built by the movement of her fingers, guided by the warmth and sentiment that she feels towards her creations. Her works is completely within the norms of her tradition and at the same time departs from it in terms of personalized treatment of form and surface. In other words, she derives from the centre of the tradition but choose to walk on the periphery-the walk is difficult but unique.

Receiving Padmashree Award presented by the President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam

Neelamani Devi has in a real sense both preserved and re-invented her own tradition and in the process enriched it in immensely. And for her contribution and dedication for the cause of pottery Naorem Ongbi Neelamani Devi has received various National and International awards and honours inside the country and overseas.

She is the recipient of 'Tulsi Samman Award' from the government of Madhya Pradesh in 1986, 'National Award for Master Craftsman' in 1986 and a certificate of Honour and also awarded the prestigious Padmashree in the year 2007 by the President of India. Samaj Kalyan Seva award from Sweden and Lion Clubs International Karmayogi Award 2005-2006.

Neelamani Devi's talent is nurtured on these centuries old collective visions and perceptions of her community, enriched by myths and legends that inform much more than mundane, factual data. She carries forward this art with her personal discernment, insight and sensibility, giving her tradition a new aspect of historic importance. Today she lives at her own village with her sons and daughter around and dream of establishing a Museum of her to display her incredible works of pottery.

See photos of Pottery designs from Naorem Ongbi Neelamani Devi here.

See multiple profile from Naorem Ongbi Neelamani Devi here.

* Donny Luwang Meisnam is a young Manipuri writer / reporter based at Imphal. He contributes regularly to
This article was webcasted at on 18th June 2009.

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