Meditative for me, hobby for others, livelihood for a select few and a revival motto for still fewer…Ceramic art has gone from being a traditional Mitti (terracotta) craft to a decorative artefact to a statement-making utility. Evolved in its form and design, this Indian art has seamlessly forayed into home decor, fashion and jewellery alike and is finally being recognized for its creative and utilitarian potential. Young creatives, who in another era might have gone to work at fashion houses, are pursuing careers to do with kilns, and more and more of the sort of with-it folks who go to Rishikesh or Himalayan yoga retreats and eat out only at an organic cafe(itself a showcase for creative clay) are signing up for after-work or weekend classes. Everyone’s a potter these days! It’s great. Pottery is more than an emerging market or au courant hobby, however; For me personally, amid our can’t-stop-won’t-stop tech-addicted culture, it connects me to the earth especially at a time when the world might as well be coming undone.
With sustainable and mindful living becoming the norm, more and more people are becoming conscious about what they consume and, in a way, waking up to the charms of pottery. The rise of urban ceramists in India and our collective Instagram obsession to be surrounded by all things beautiful can only mean one thing—more artful creations.
Turning the wheels of change are Bangalore’s ceramic artists, who are not only adding more beauty to the city with their works, but are also mentoring others to create empty vessels that make the most impact. Sign up for a month-long beginner class like I recently did and you may soon be able to design your own handmade collection of functional objects that tell a story.
Just yesterday, I visited a beautifully curated 3-day ceramic exhibit titled ‘ A Sorted Ceramics’ – where 14 Bangalore-based studio potters put up their gallery quality collections up for sale at artist’s prices with zero middlemen or commissions. Handbuilt, thrown on the wheel, sculpted, glazed, Raku-fired, wood-fired, painted on, mixed media, electric-kiln fired, under glazed, over glazed, stamped, stenciled, the show attests to a robust ceramic art scene in Bangalore. There was a good mix of well-priced functional ceramics, murals, lighting and decor and objets’ d’ art from a diverse group of ceramic artists both in terms of gender and age that will appeal to every kind of art and ceramic lover. Just as we crave connection with the person who bakes our cakes, we want a coffee mug that feels made by hand—even if it’s too valuable to actually drink from.
I had the chance to spend some time with Amrita Dhawan of Amrita’s Atelier, one of the show’s curators and a well-respected ceramics thespian and mentor to many.
Amrita learned under the guidance of the legendary Ray Meeker of Goldenbridge Pottery in Pondicherry (1983-84) and at Delhi Blue Pottery and has since spent decades making functional ceramics and objets’ d’ art at her studio in Pondicherry, then Kodaikanal and for the last few years practicing and teaching at her spacious home studio in Bangalore. Primarily specialising in wood-fired pieces, using Anagama kilns, a Japanese type of kiln. A handful of people in India use Anagama kilns. Centuries ago, the potters in Japan and China used to work with these wood-fired tunnel shaped kilns located on hillsides. The kilns are fired for weeks. These days, Amrita tells me that she’s made a very reluctant transition to electric kilns because wood-fired kilns are just not an option in her urban Bangalore home studio. Although, she deeply bemoans the loss of her unique aesthetic developed with wood-fired kilns, she’s realised that it is going to be impossible to recreate it in an electric kiln. Over a period of time, Amrita tells me she’s had to create her design aesthetics to work best with the kind of kiln and firing technique she’s using.
She points me towards a few of the wood-fired and Raku-fired pieces on display by Amrita Puniani – because she says one can describe all they can about the wood-fired aesthetic but nothing compares to seeing, touching and experiencing it for yourself. The weeks of wood firing means the wood ash deposits and interacts with the glaze resulting in unpredictable but exciting patterns and textures only attributable to the ever fickle kiln gods.
This exhibit is so varied that there is no way to categorize it – ‘assorted’ describes it best. For the most part, each artist deals with the ceramic medium and their particular subject matter in their own way without theorizing or over-intellectualizing. I asked Spandana Vella as to why her pieces are called ‘Ant Pots’ and she explained that they were made at a particularly difficult time in her personal life where she felt small and overburdened by worries, responsibilities and expectations kind of like a tiny ant rolling up a big chunk of dirt uphill many times heavier than its own body weight. Most of the work on display is deeply personal and uninflected by trends. Sushma Madappa’s collection pays homage to India’s rich block-printed textiles heritage and each of her pieces mimic the look and feel of wooden, patterned, textured blocks – all hand built and stamped with pretty, paisley motifs.
I also admired Pooja Agarwala’s minimalistic approach to marry terracotta, porcelain and wood to come up with interesting lighting solutions – loved how light passes through the luminous white porcelain gyre-like lampshades – dreamy, dreamy, dreamy.
Rajvi Mehta’s earthy colour palette and textures and patterns she uses really help define the form of her functional pieces – i instantly picked up her incense igloos that now add such a simple rustic charm to my daily fragrance indulgence. I even got three packs of gorgeous smelling, complimentary incense cones to go with the domes. Thank you Rajvi!
Kudos to all the studio potters here because this indeed is a tough path to tread while selecting ceramic as the medium to express one’s creativity. As simple as it seems, the process of pottery consists of several complex processes including sourcing clay, prepping (wire wedge, bull skull wedge, spiral wedge), potter’s wheel/ handbuilding, drying, leather hard, greenware, bisque firing, glazing, glaze firing, and over glaze firing. The cost of setting up one’s own fully functioning studio with a kiln can seem prohibitive to many with most of the latest sophisticated tools still unavailable in the Indian market. There aren’t many accredited, professional ceramic courses or Art schools in Bangalore or India, so ceramic artists have managed to keep the flame burning for this style purely with their perseverance. Organisations like the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust, Golden Bridge Pottery (GBP) based in Pondicherry have worked hard to keep this tradition alive by inspiring, motivating and guiding ceramic artists.
I’ve created a few simple clay pieces myself this month as part of my training that will take days to finish properly, but there’s a joy of working with clay. You can’t rush it, things will crack and break and fall off. This is the opposite of an instant gratification activity – a lesson in letting go and the beauty of imperfections and impermanence. Conversely, the gratification runs deep. Hours can pass without thinking or caring about anything else—that’s what is known as the ‘potter’s nod’. It’s a feeling that’s very similar to being at the mercy of a wonderful drug, except in this case, it’s a holistic antidepressant. I love the craft’s elemental appeal but I’m still learning that you have to be in tune with the clay and react to what state it’s in to work with it. Coupled with my daily yoga practice, working with clay has been very meditative. It’s hard not to hear the echoes of all my yoga teachers who urged me to try new poses and not worry about falling or losing balance. It turns off a higher level of thinking. You have to let go and give in to the unpredictability of it. You can go in with an idea of what you want to make, and the clay doesn’t want to do that.
Clay is liberating in that nobody can see you trip up, and nobody is hungry for what you end up doing with it unlike cooking —well, nobody but your Instagram followers. 😋Ommmmm!
Note : If you are in Bangalore, don’t miss the ceramics exhibit which is on from 5th to 7th March 11 am to 8pm at Bangalore International centre, Domlur. And do call in advance and make a dinner/lunch reservation at the brand new Navu Project inside BIC- you’ll thank me for it later!