“Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time...
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ --- that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats ~ Ode On A Grecian Urn, 1820
The Poetry of Pottery is evidenced by these timeless lines, that remain etched in humanity’s immortal memory-bank. The reason why pottery evokes the High Muse is because it is one of the world’s earliest (prehistoric) art-forms. Its resilient shards remain intact in fine museums as components of Culture, having survived over millennia at all the world’s archaeological sites. As beauteous objects of daily use that are lovingly sculpted by hand, pottery has lyrically expressed the world’s cultural stylistics --- from the earliest pre-literate terracotta pots of Mohenjodaro, to the flamboyant, graphically-glazed illustrative plates of Pompeii.
Our planet’s very first pots were made in China --- during the Tang Dynasty, circa 618. China is the only country that continues to mass-produce pottery as essential items of daily use – both for eating as well as storage. Metal became the preferred mode for India’s daily tableware, while Europe evolved mass-produced porcelain and bone-china over the centuries. However, the artistry and stylistics of India’s fine pottery have always evoked much praise, with several significant Indian pottery-hubs—such as Delhi Blue Studio Pottery pioneered by Sardar Gurcharan Singh, the Andretta Pottery and Crafts Society in the Kangra Valley, and Pondicherry—attracting ardent studio-potters globally.
As a form that elegantly blends handmade shapes, colours and textures, fine pottery provides great scope for evolved aesthetic expression. Regular Indian pottery-bazaars have been held over the years in Bhopal and the south of India. It is only for the past 2 years, however, that North India has seen an organised Pottery Haat. Set in the tranquil, shaded precincts of O P Jain’s Anandgram on MG Road, (also known as Sanskriti Kendra) --- a terracotta village, designed in an Ashram mode --- the Pottery Bazar has been held here from winter 2011.
Held over 3 days during the past weekend, the Anandgram Potter’s Bazar (earlier known as ‘Potter’s Haat’) brought together 75 Indian potters, showcasing quite a wide array of ceramic styles. The maximum price was set at Rs. 4,000, in order to maintain affordability. The three essential ‘clay-bodies’ of Terracotta, Stoneware and Porcelain were available here in wide ranges. The objects were all utilitarian, microwaveable and dairy-safe, suitable for storage as well as for serving. The purpose was to encourage the pursuit of artistry in this fine craft, as well as to provide a safe meeting-hub for the country’s varied potters to share designs and ideas. Another interesting aspect of the Bazar was the diversity of the potters’ backgrounds. From well-clad, erudite Scientists and Chemists to rural farmers in rustic pagdis, urbane Professors of German and Literature, students of Design and Architecture, theatre- and culture-activists, confectioners, senior citizens and housewives, a wide cross-section of Indians find peace, creativity and harmony in Pottery-crafting --- both as a hobby and as a profession.
Shehla Hashmi, sister of the martyred theatre-activist Safdar Hashmi, is a senior pottery-teacher in Gurgaon. She told me, “I made pottery from my youngest days. Later on I taught Literature at college, but I gave it up to set up my own home pottery-studio, and teach pottery. I like to maintain classical, simple pottery-forms. Previously my work was unembellished, as I didn’t paint; but of late, I have begun painting simple oriental designs on my pottery.”
As a contrast, the fine glazed plates, masks and urns crafted by Anju Kalsi are like painterly works of art, depicting delicate birds and flora in timeless palettes of pale azures and reds. From an art-critical standpoint, I found in Anju’s pottery-works a fine blend of modernity and classicism, with an evolved sense of pattern-making. Anju, who is a cake-designer by profession, pointed out to me that she uses a design-technique known as ‘Feathering’, to create rippling, repeated motifs on her pottery. Charming designs thus swirl ethereally around her pieces, like modern mandalas, making each work a unique objet d’art -- worthy of displaying on an easel. “Only the delicate tip of a feather is carefully applied to a fine wet top layer of clay, to create shimmering design-effects. This is a painstaking process to master, but visually very effective,” she elaborated.
Lucknow-born Srirupa Sen’s pottery is marked by a joyful flair for multiple colours, and a gentle, fluid mastery of form. Her works caught my eye with their luminosity and grace. She explained her journey in clay to me thus: “The North Indian pottery tradition of Chinhat inspires me. My love for pottery goes back to my time as a Chemistry professor, as I have always been fascinated by the formation of extraordinary shapes, and blending a multitude of colours. The traditions of Delhi Blue gave me that opportunity. I like to juxtapose modernity and tradition, by using new glaze techniques in functional ceramics. I am further inspired by Mediterranean and Greek antiquities. The designs in my pottery aim to depict what I see as a ‘natural state of chaos, conflict, and transcribed contradictions’.”
The senior Prof. Rajendra Dengle, who teaches German at Jawaharlal Nehry University, is an accomplished creator of Delhi-Blue pottery forms. His rich and sombre pieces stand the test of time with their strong, evolved lines. A younger potter, Tinni Arora, has also achieved a similar depth of formation in her versatile, sturdy and functional bowls and plates, confidently-crafted in classical tones of lapis, slate and black. Usha Chaddha, who at 70 is one of the eldest potters, displays harmony and subtlety in her creations. She was taught by the late Delhi thespian potter Deviprosad ever since the 1960s, as was Shehla Hashmi; and has remained devoted to the wheel. Usha-ji taught English Literature in Africa and also at IIT Delhi, but says that “it was pottery that greatly heightened my sense of discipline, patience, satisfaction and responsibility.” By contrast, Anubha Jaswal, a fledgling potter in her 30s, whose work is still at a nascent stage, told me that “for me, pottery has been an alternative to the urban grind: a form of finding true expression. I found an escape from the buzz of city life’s constant distractions in Andretta, Pondicherry, Bhopal, and at my Bangalore pottery classes.” Anubha’s whimsical miniature sculptures and totemic masks bear the promise of future aesthetic evolution.
The Pottery Bazar has been a soothing and pleasing experience, transcendentally free from Gurgaon’s nervous stress and pollution. The Ashram-alternative is now no longer a luxury but a necessity, for humans to retain calm and equipoise; and creating pottery in pastoral environs is a fine means to that end. Schoolchildren who were brought in to Anandgram to observe the works were enthralled to experience pottery’s charms amid the pastoral peace. Visitors from China and Europe, too, were delighted with the Indian Bazar’s zen-like atmosphere. Two senior Indian potters, Leena Batra and Usha Garodia, had recently visited China, in order to imbibe the best traditions of the world’s largest pottery-hub.
It is essential that this nature-friendly, peaceful and therapeutic art be taught to vast urban audiences, and further imbibed by Indian art-lovers. In future bazars at Anandgram one would look for even greater experimentation in pottery-forms and techniques, and avant-garde artistry involving more contemporary trends and unexpected ceramic and stoneware forms.