BANGA: The Common Man’s Cooler
|Earthenware like the banga are very porous, and this feature, aided by a natural process, turns its content into a welcome thirst-quencher.
Once the centerpiece of the common Filipino's kitchen, the banga, a piece of hand-crafted earthenware, seems headed for extinction. It is no longer the indispensable household item that it used to be and is now seldom seen in the ordinary man's house. Or even the urban farmer's hut. It has become such a rarity in this age of plastic containers that the banga, as it is called, is now mostly used in remote or mountain villages. Rural electrification has energized the countryside and with it, the shift to things new and modern.
Time was when this water vessel held a special place in many houses. Gracefully shaped and rounded like the water jars in Biblical times, this later version is without a handle, but is fitted with a faucet to dispense water. It is also bigger and taller, since it is not meant to be lugged around but rather, installed in a designated spot. And there it will stay, to be refilled regularly with drinking water.
In that distant past, when electricity was limited to the urban centers and the refrigerator was yet to be introduced, the banga was the common man's water cooler. The rich and the hacienderos had European water filters, or used imported ice blocks with their wooden icebox. The rest were happy with their reliable banga.
For a long period of time, the banga was an oasis for everyone—the farmer, hot and tired from working in the fields, the housewife returning from the market, the kids home from school. For these simple folk, the earthen vessel was a source of comfort and relief, thanks to its natural cooling system. But what, indeed, turns ordinary water into a refreshing drink?
Earthenware like the banga are very porous, and this feature, aided by a natural process, turns its content into a welcome thirst-quencher. When filled with water, some amount of the liquid seeps out through the pores of the vessel, in what was commonly described as "sweating”. The small quantity of water that has escaped gains access to a large surface area of the banga that is at least two or three feet high. Thus, the small amount of water is in contact with the atmospheric air, greatly enhancing the tendency of evaporation.
When water evaporates, heat is taken away from the attached solid support which is the banga, thereby lowering its surface temperature. When the liquid content comes in thermal equilibrium with the vessel, the result is an overall lowering of water temperature. The cooling process of the drinking water is plain, simple and easy. Not so with the making of the container.
|...the making of an earthenware, especially a large one like the banga, differs from the preparation of material.
Very few really know—or care—how the banga is made, but one who has witnessed the workings of the wheel claims that it is not gentle, but almost violent particularly during the initial stage of the work. The potter begins by vigorously working the clay with his hands to remove unwanted materials. He squeezes it, pounds it, beats it and even slams it against a hard surface to do this. To an uninformed observer this appears too harsh. But the procedure is necessary to get the impurities out of the clay. Experienced workers know that any organic matter or air that remains could cause the pottery to explode and ruin the work completely.
A recent visit to a local barangay of pottery-makers showed that the making of an earthenware, especially a large one like the banga, differs from the preparation of material. While the latter is seen as harsh, almost violent, the first is a study in care and full attention. This was shown by a long-time artisan during a recent visit to a local barangay of pottery-makers.
Like most potters, 74-year-old Catalino Postrano did not have any formal training in pottery-making. When he was in his early 20's, the former houseboy and cook married into a family of artisans from Guinhalaran, a barangay in Silay City, where he continues to live with his wife. At the time, the fishing village was known for the quality of its pottery which provided a decent livelihood for many of its residents.
Postrano learned the craft from watching his wife and in-laws create pottery from clay found in the area. In time, Postrano mastered the craft and learned to love it as well. After 50 years and hundreds of clay pieces later, it is clear that he still does. It was apparent that morning as he answered questions about the banga showing experience and a mastery of the detailed process that he knew by heart.
Taking a half-finished banga from a nearby shed, Postrano demonstrated the process by taking a lump of clay and began to fashion the base by shaping, molding and feeling with his hands. No measurements were taken or considered; he worked from memory and years of practice. That done, he reached over to an old table where flattened strips of four-inch wide and one-inch thick damp clay were laid out.
Postrano peeled off a strip very carefully and went through the motion of attaching it to the base. He explained that in actual work, the strip is attached only when the base is almost dry. The same method is used for all the strips until the vessel is completely formed. This precaution, warned Postrano, should be strictly observed to ensure that the large piece does not collapse in the middle of work.
|The potter lets the fire burn out and leaves the banga and other pieces to cool before he can begin the final touches that will prepare them for display and, hopefully, make a sale.
It was fascinating to learn that the banga, unlike a small piece of pottery, is built from the bottom up—strip by strip, all the while molding the piece into shape. The construction ends when the neck is attached, a small opening made for the faucet, and a lump of clay fashioned into a cover. But the work does not end there. Refining the piece that began with the attachment of the first strip continues while it dries. To make sure that the shape is right, the surface even and smooth, the body firm and seamless, Postrano uses simple tools: a large flat stone, a small wooden paddle, and a piece of rag.
Watching and listening to Postrano earlier, one notices how carefully he handles the
sample in his hands. All the while that he was explaining the work, he kept rubbing his
palm around the banga, unconsciously smoothing the surface in a manner that was tender, even loving. Here was a man who loved his craft.
While the banga sits in the sun, Postrano describes what happens next. Once hard and dry, the banga is readied for firing, not in a kiln, but out in the open field not far from Postrano's workshop. The large vessel is placed on the ground along with smaller clay products of various size and shape. The potter then sets fire to the kindling wood and rice husk or "uhot”(ipa in Tagalog} piled around them. He adds more pieces of wood and gets the fire going. To make sure that the banga is fired thoroughly and evenly, he covers it with “uhot.” As long as the fire on the ground keeps on burning, so does the "uhot" on top.
Firing the earthen pieces takes at least a day in good weather; longer when rainy and the ground wet, even flooded. Regardless of the weather or the time it takes, the potter remains at the site to ensure that the firing is done right. He stokes the fire with the use of a long pole, and adds more “uhot” and wood to make sure the firing process continues. Carefully he turns the various pieces around this way and that with the same pole, much like roasting food
over live coals to make sure that every piece is fired evenly.
The firing process is done when the earthen products turn a beautiful orangey color.
The potter lets the fire burn out and leaves the banga and other pieces to cool before he can begin the final touches that will prepare them for display and, hopefully, make a sale. And for the banga that takes as long as 15 days to make, it will be a much more satisfying and rewarding sale.
The poor man's cooler—the banga—needs a lot of cleaning and attention because of its use and size. After the faucet is attached, the potter cleans the large vessel inside and out with the rag to remove soot and dirt from the firing process. This is done with great patience and a keen eye until he is satisfied with the quality of his craftsmanship.
For the time and effort invested in making it, the banga is priced at a mere Php 250. According to Postrano, most of the money will pay for materials bought on credit and to the "capitalista" (financier) or the contractor. This sorry state of affairs does not seem to matter to artisans like Postrano, who still remembers when the water vessel sold for forty pesos (Php 40). That was in the 1960s, when he first joined the pottery-makers of Guinhalaran.
Although Barangay Guinhalaran is a fishing village, it was better known for the quality of its pottery in the past. Residents made a living from fishing, vending, or producing pottery. It was the latter, however, that called attention to the village and its creative community. Stacks of earthen pieces—from garden and cooking pots, to banga and toy kitchenware for little girls – lined the sides of the highway leading to Bacolod. The roadside display became a landmark for its local artisans at work attracting buyers and visitors alike.
In time the community of simple potters and their work became so popular they became one of Silay's tourist lures. The tourism sector introduced the Clay Festival adding luster to the special destination. Every year, on Labor Day, the festivities celebrating the artisans and their work opened with a parade along a portion of the highway. Participants dressed in native attire carrying clay products in their arms and marched to music. The attention and patronage they got encouraged the potters to come up with new designs: magazine holders, colorful house and garden decors joined the roadside display. Business was flourishing; those were good times, But that was the Guinhalaran of yesteryear.
Unfortunately, Guinhalaran's good fortune did not last, as several factors combined to rob the potters of their livelihood: depleted sources of the clay; increased production costs and decreased demand for earthenware as plastic products flooded the market. Other factors contributed to the deteriorating situation, like the province-wide economic downturn of the 70s. It was inevitable; bad times have arrived and the pottery business of Guinhalaran suffered the fate of many small-scale industries.
During these hard times, the work that once provided a modest income for the pottery-makers ceased to be viable. For the artisans who did not know any other trade, it was time to look at other options. Many a potter's wheel was abandoned as long-time producers left the once-bustling community to find work. Others, like Catalino Postrano, opted to stay and continue the tradition that their offspring refused to embrace. And here in Guinhalaran, he continues to stay with his wife and a son who does not share his passion for pottery-making.
These days, Guinhalaran is a far cry from the beehive of activities that it was before.
Close to mid-day that morning, no one was working on the wheel or tending to pieces of pottery roasting in the nearby field. The cluster of houses was quiet with a few women sweeping the yard, and one or two young mothers out with their babies for a dose of sunlight. No one cared for the nosey strangers looking for a pottery-maker and asking to see a banga. It took a while before an elderly woman ordered a young boy to go fetch a certain Catalino from his house behind a workshop. He seemed to be the only one around. Or maybe the only one eager to talk about his work and the now-disappearing banga.
This is the Guinhalaran of today, languishing and a mere shadow of its former image. One wonders what's in store for dedicated potters like Postrano who persist in practicing a craft that no longer pays. Business is definitely slow—if not totally gone—as evidenced by that morning. But Postrano continues to make his pottery, mostly small ones like chicken feeders that are more marketable such as the flower and cooking pots that continue to be in demand. But he is not in a hurry to finish the banga knowing that it will be sitting in the shed for months.
The banga has always been a slow-moving item even in better times. It is made to last "almost forever" according to Postrano. He broke into a faint smile for the first time, obviously proud of how he and his fellow craftsmen make the water vessel with integrity. He remembered that the late parents of his wife owned a banga that previously belonged to their own parents-in-law. Postrano and artisans like him make quality pottery that is meant to last a lifetime. But with the way things are, however, the banga may be going the way of the dinosaur.
Photos by Tina Lapres.
© Tina H. Lapres