I loved writing this piece because I love clay and pots and ceramic arts
Working with your hands in wet clay is a sensual experience
First Published: Fri, Sep 14 2012. 07 14 PM IST
An artist at Pottery Town, where 45 families make a living out of clay. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Clad in a blue housecoat—what else—Nethra, the artist, is painting a 2ft-tall clay Ganesh. She holds her brush vertically and paints three white lines on the Hindu god’s forehead to indicate sacred ash. She paints the elephant god’s eyes: The top line is black and the bottom lid is red. Ganesh looks hungover.
“Do you want a snake on his stomach?” Nethra asks rhetorically. As fashion statements go, a snake tattoo on your stomach is hard to top.
With the “clean, clear and intentional strokes” that Chinese watercolourists revere, Nethra paints a curving snake around my clay Ganesh’s stomach. There is no mistake, no hesitation in her strokes. Legendary Chinese watercolour artist Qi Baishi would have been proud. He may have even included a snake in his repertoire of shrimps, crickets and flowers.
I am in Pottery Town, Bangalore, where 45 families make a living from clay. Nethra and her husband, Nanda Kumar, grew up in this neighbourhood. The families were originally from Alangayam, a town in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. The British brought them to Bangalore and set them up in Pottery Town, says Kumar. The families own their homes and share a giant kiln, where—in a cosmic stroke of egalitarianism—humble matka-pots and giant Ganesh idols are fired together. Each potter can make up to Rs.30,000 per month, Kumar says, working for 6-8 hours a day on clay lamps, incense holders, vases, pots of various sizes, and during the season, elephant gods in a variety of colours and sizes. Most idols are made by inserting clay into plaster of Paris moulds, giving them the disconcerting uniformity of the Xi’an terracotta warriors.
Have you entered a room to find dozens of Ganesh figures staring unblinkingly at you?
Bangaloreans throng Pottery Town during the Ganesh festive season. During the rest of the year, these potters supply their wares to five-star hotels in the city. Across the street is a four-storey home where countless tiny pots, destined for the ITC Hotels, are lined up.
“We sell them for Rs.1.50 or Rs.2 per pot and you people will eat curds out of these at hotels by payingRs.250,” says Kumar with a grin.
I was in love with a Potter once. She was an author named Beatrix. Later, I fell in love with a Potter called Harry. Today, my brush with potters occurs during the festive season but that’s about it. I find this puzzling. How did potters rise so high in China, Japan, Korea and the UK, while here in India, we treat the ceramic arts almost like a circus? Think of the top visual artists of India—does anyone from the ceramic arts make it to the list, except perhaps Ray Meeker of Puducherry and Gurcharan Singh? In contrast, ceramics and pottery are venerated all over the East. Go to Japan and attend a tea ceremony. The whole thing seems to be about holding a teacup reverentially in both hands, and sipping groundmatcha tea from it.
How did India veer away from the earthenware and ceramic trajectory followed by most Eastern civilizations? Think of the Jomon and Meiji pottery of Japan; the celadon glazes of Korea; the Ming vases of China; the fragile raku ware used in the Japanese tea ceremony; the curving Burma pots; the animal figurines of the Sukhothai and Ban Chiang periods of Thailand, and you’ll see what I mean. Think of Indian ceramics and what do you get? Nothing. Why? I think it is because we in India developed metal.
Our early expertise in metal gave the world our exquisite Chola bronzes. But they also caused us to take a fork in the road that we are on to this day. Consider: Much of the world uses ceramic plates, cups and bowls. In India, we use stainless steel. Why? Because we discovered steel. Around 300 BC India and Sri Lanka developed what is now called “wootz steel” but is in fact a corrupted Anglicized version of the word “urukku”, which means melted metal in most south Indian languages. This Indian metal—steel is iron with a dash of carbon, chromium and other trace metals—that came to be called stainless steel spread to Arabia and later to Europe through the shining Damascus swords. Was this why our civilization lost interest in clay? If so, it is a pity.
Working with your hands in wet clay is a sensual experience. To work on a potter’s wheel demands a certain concentration that I don’t have. As an art student, I couldn’t throw on a potter’s wheel; I made hand-built giant ceramic objects, including a man with his tongue sticking out. My thrown pots always ended up wobbly and off centre. A potter’s wheel is a demanding tool; the foundation of that oft used word co-opted by yoga teachers: centring. Centring a pot is a technique that doesn’t come to all. Teaching children how to throw a pot will calm them down; centre their attention on the pot and improve their concentration. Your child may not end up a Bernard Leach or Shoji Hamada, but at least it will be a welcome change from that familiar refrain: “Where’s the iPad?”
Shoba Narayan acknowledges that Wedgewood and Ming pottery have their place, but she prefers the ethereal translucence of Korean celadon. Write to her at email@example.com
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns