Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CRAFT: March 21, 1999
From the potter's wheel
Poetry of a profoundly ironic kind subverts our relationship to the humble, enduring craft of the potter's wheel. More than even a crumbling monument evoking images of past grandeur, or a frayed parchment carefully preserved in a glass case in a museum, a shard of broken pottery connects us to human history.
Pottery is as ancient as human civilisation and is perhaps, the first craft which rose from its utilitarian origins to become a thing of beauty and artistic expression. When you see a piece of broken pottery, labelled and dated in a museum, a strange sense of continuity with an ancient, shared past grips an overimaginative mind... the dailiness of life lived all those centuries ago is linked by unknown sensitive hands which shaped the pliant clay to forms that grow organically out of the earth. The echo of inevitability, of dust returning unto dust, reverberates across the aeons and yet, there is this surviving fragment of an artefact that symbolises continuum and fragile immortality.
Still gripped by this strangely uplifting sense of human continuity, you return to the disquieting dissonances of the present. The ubiquitous mud pot perched on a highrise window-sill anchors the rootless urbanite to the good earth. But there are discordant ironies which displace the craft and craftsmen into an alienated, often artificial ethos. Centuries from now, when archaeologists dig up the debris of the 20th century, will they too date us by the shards of pottery found deep under our built-over cities? Will they puzzle over the remains and conclude that this piece of painted terra cotta plate with hauntingly familiar hieroglyphics is from a late 20th century Mumbai apartment which seems to have had an eclectic mix of moulded plastic furniture, antique wood, stainless steel utensils and remnants of mass produced, outdated electronic gizmos?
Is it any wonder that the traditional potter is so hard to come by in the metropolitan city? Even twenty years ago, when you stopped by a busy road to buy a gamla for the new plant, the people selling the variously shaped and sized pots, pitchers and the odd jar, were the potters themselves who spread their wares and their families on the pavements. They lived in shanties that clung to the highways and some even came from outlying villages. But not anymore. The middlemen and art galleries, designer lifestyle stores and exclusive outlets have taken over from the traditional craftsman. Swami Vivekanda Road is an artery that flows through Mumbai's Western suburbs. Unceasing traffic struggles through this cholesterol-coated artery. Amid the faceless new apartment blocks that have supplanted the gracious cottages and spacious bungalows of old, there is this blank, surreal space with roofless blackened stumps of walls. Weeds and nameless shrubs widen the cracks in the stone pavement abutting the walls and foliage creeps out from this modern ruin like Medusa's serpent locks. But all over the cleared frontage, bang next to the pavement, are serried rows of terra cotta elephants and horses, like an ancient army arrayed in battle formation against the fleet of Marutis, Fiats, Esteems, Cielos and the lumbering Best double-deckers splashed with advertising messages. The richly decorated elephants and horses, the floridly engraved pots sitting squat on the ground, upright urns rearing proudly in the background, black, brown and ochre jars jostling for attention... they all spill out disconcertingly and vie for your delighted browsing.
Sanjay, sporting a bright orange bindi, separates himself from a group playing cards around a rickety table plonked in the centre of a room with three roofless walls. It is like an actor walking out from a proscenium stage with the fourth wall taken out. Twenty something Sanjay from Bihar, makes a reasonable living selling affordable artefacts to suburbanites. The terra cotta cavalry and the huge urns rimmed with ornamental rings, are from Madanapalli in Andhra Pradesh, he informs you. The ceramic pots and jars - rather uninteresting compared to the rich variety of shapes, sizes, forms of the earthenware boasting both a sheen of glaze as well as rough hewn ruggedness - with their entwined tracery in predictable blue, maroon and yellow patterns are from Delhi and Rajasthan. The gamlas - in the usual reddish brown and beigy off-white - are from nearby Gujarat. There is nothing at all from Maharashtra. Or even from his native Bihar.
Sanjay's prices are reasonable, ranging from Rs. 40 for a small pot and going up to Rs. 2,000-Rs. 3,000 for a two feet high urn. These urns, rimmed with gold, which have relief motifs and are encircled with rings which are embedded into the surface, need large flats to be shown off in all their splendour. Sanjay sells them wholesale to lifestyle boutiques and occasional individual customers who yearn to possess something which is a timeless classic in its pure geometry of shape and yet, has a very specific Indian look. The fecund decorations which proliferate on our temple freizes is transplanted unto these utensils which were originally used for storing grain. These urns now adorn a special niche or form the base of an unusual table, modern sensibility adapting a utility article to its own times and ideas of interior decor.
Another Mumbai road and another vendor of crafts. Raut, a local Maharashtrian, permanently displays his wares brought from Gorakhpur and Khurja, both in Uttar Pradesh. They are ranged against the compound wall of a building, adjacent to a roomy shop where bone china and ceramic tableware are sold. The class difference is obvious. The earthenware from Gorakhpur does its version of the basic Bankura horse. The Bankura horse spells stylisation at its sophisticated best. The potters of Gorakhpur bring an endearing touch of rusticity to their horses and elephants, even as the decorations echo the intricate patterns of Moradabad's enamelled brassware. Like much else in Uttar Pradesh, the potters reflect the symbiotic marriage of styles - the arabesque geometry of Mughal architecture and the teeming fecundity of Hindu embellishment, a riot of curlicues and embossed patterns. Most of the pots - whether they are just four inches or three feet tall - have a charming garland of terra cotta bells fringing the rims and emphasising the round girth. Even a tiny cup, meant to hold pens, sports these scaled down pendants.
What is amazing is the enduring echo of Mohenjodaro and its fertility goddesses. The Gorakhpur potters sculpt a small female deity - squat, round and beaming benevolence - and she holds a small diya. Sometimes, a trio of diyas in which you can pour oil and light the wick. Ganesh is the other favourite deity who becomes yet another diya bearer. Ganesh is sometimes embedded into a semi-circular wall plaque outlined with tiny diyas. You can picture a village home lit by this wonderfully innovative image which is a symbolic blend of light and divine protection.
This rugged nativity is missing from the ceramic pots, vases and tall jars which somehow have a cheap bazaar look. They do not evoke the feeling of loving human hands creating these images and shapes out of a lump of wet, pliant clay. The ceramic pots can neither achieve the individuality of a studio potter nor the bland uniformity of a mass produced article. They often look like a poor man's uneducated version of Chinese and Persian ceramics. It is when you go to the exclusive designer shops that you find ceramic objects leaping out of their tasteful display racks with originality of colour, shape, glaze, texture and form. The mugs and dinner sets have flamboyant designs or muted sophistication, folks motifs and stylised abstractions to go with any decor or a decorator's latest dictum of what is currently fashionable.
Good Earth is a boutique that spells exclusivity with a capital E. The Delhi based designer, Anita Lal, has resurrected the terra cotta garden planter into an artefact that can be displayed as a work of art on its own. The pots, urns and jars flaunt their classic forms and the engravings are geometric, deliberately echoing Greek and Egyptian motifs. The colours are subdued and yet arresting. Here is a traditional craft taken out of its simple rustic ambience to fit into jet set sophistication. The signature store has hand-painted glazed tiles framing mirrors, serving as table tops and as serving trays. The studio encourages labourers and traditional potters to let their imagination run riot with small ceramic objects. So claims the marketing manager.
If designers are making pottery upscale, kitsch of the worst kind proliferates all too frequently. More so during Diwali. Bored housewives, enterprising shopkeepers and market savvy department stores take the traditional diya and transform it into a thing of kitsch horror. Diyas of all shapes and sizes are painted over - usually a bright brick red with touches of green and yellow - and then have sequins or mirrors pasted on them. A strip of gaudy zari is sometimes wound round a tall standing diya to compound the insult to the purity of form and function. This is more eloquent of our own debased taste nurtured by the greed of money-grubbers who buy the diyas at wholesale prices from potters and then unleash this readymade vulgarity at festive times where flash is mistaken for class.
The saddest part is the gradual obliteration of the functional aspect. You cannot find the ghada, the oval shaped pot, or the elegant surahi, which really cools water to the degree that is best for quenching thirst. Twenty years ago, you found the ghada with a water tap (potters turning practical) in many middle-class homes. Now, the stainless steel or aluminium or plastic container is the preferred choice. Even in villages, where the Gujarati seasonal delicacy Undhyu was cooked in an earthern pot, only the poorest of the poor use mud ware. If it is steel or aluminium for cooking, it is plastic for storage. The potter's product lives in cities, where it is an inalienable part of ethnic chic - of the chatai, Rajasthani pichwai, Gurjari floor cushions and Bankura horse look.
But the potter's wheel has attracted acclaimed artists too. The unassuming, everyday article of domestic use - a water jug, a mug, a plate et al - attracted Picasso's inventive genius. He may not have turned the wheel but transformed these intimate articles into surreal, cubist sculptures. Like the other great Spanish artist Joan Miro, pottery drew Picasso to his Mediterranean, classical roots. A similar blending of art and craft has not happened in India. The master artist and master craftsman have remained separate identities, with the vast chasm of status, recognition and monetary benefits yawning between them. Only middlemen and designer labels thrive.
Copyrights © 1999, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.