From the Center: Of Creativity in the Clay of India

From the Center: Of Creativity in the Clay of India

Trupti Patel
Meru, Vadodara, 2010

Clay is a basic material, universally dug up and used in all cultures all over the world. It is so various and adantable that each culture and each succeeding generation finds in it a new means of expression. Countless cenerations of potters all over the world have bequeathed to us its knowledge in great complexity. Pots and shards have played a significant role in the historical and anthropological studies of how other peoples have lived.

The history of Terracotta in Indian culture is associated with the rising and flourishing of urban societies since the 6th century B. C. until the present. The hereditary craftsmen have practiced their calling in guilds according to their exigencies in local conditions making domestic wares, folk, votive and secular objects for daily use.

Abundance of natural red clay all over the country suitable for terracotta has produced wares not glazed, but burnished and painted with colored clay slips. The technique of open pit firing remains unchanged in India as glazing has not been part of the tradition. This may be largely due to practice in Hindu tradition where cups, bowls, containers and pots once used were usually thrown away returning to the earth and also provided continual work for the potters. The terracotta art is endowed with meaning that reflect the rich tradition of Indian symbolism suited to native religions, theology, rituals, literature, geography, sculpture, painting and continue to play an important role fill today.

Terracotta art traces a continuous trail of evolution since the Mohen-jo-Daro and Harappa cultures showing development in distinct forms and styles. The early Gupta period ca. Middle of 4th Century A.D. reveal tile and moulded brick works of very high artistic quality suggesting a new interest in wall decoration. The palaces and forts built by the Rajputs later between 8"-12th Centuries represented Hindu-Muslim style of architecture introducing for the first time coloured glaze tile work, made by Muslim artisans from Afghanistan. These are most notable in forts at Gwalior, Chittor, Mandu and Ranthambore. Subsequent Pathan Kings of the Sultanate Period built mosques and tombs decorated with plain blue colored and painted tiles from the 12-15th Century A.D. The work of Muslim potters in centers like Khurja, Multan, Lucknow, Kashmir, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and other places popularised the use of low temperature glazed pottery with articles like, bottles, surahis, pickle jars, hukkas and tiles that continue to be made in places today.

Increasing European trade, interest and influence in India culminated in colonization by the British. They saw the need for development and education and established Madras School of Art in 1852, the first art Institution in India followed by other art schools like Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkota and Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. Later, institutions in Lahore, Lucknow, Banaras and Delhi followed. The early art and craft centers had begun to serve such purpose as the Madras School of Art's pottery section emphasising on terracotta art which is evident even today. The art courses offered a western training and approach to art as opposed to conventional practice of arts in traditional India. A new age in modern art practice was about to start.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate, poet artist had set up Santiniketan- a school dedicated to the arts in 1906. Both, Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore had a vision of liberated human beings realised through educational approach based on creativity. In the early 1920s with the help of German pottery experts, Sriniketan was set up to encourage low temperature glazed earthenware for the benefit of local potters as well as students. Gandhiji had put into action satyagraha, his technique of nonviolent resistance. Devi Prasad, as a young student studying painting at Santiniketan in 1938, came in contact with Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhiji there during the freedom struggle of Indian independence. Their ideals of educational modernity involved indigenous models and methods better suited for native requirements in institutions both at Santiniketan and Gandhiji's Nayee Talim at Sevagram. This encouraged Devi Prasad to work at Sevagram in Wardha from 1944. In 1950, he started a pottery workshop there and was later joined by Kalindi Jena, a gifted potter from Orissa.

In the early 20th Century, the British influence sought to produce ceramics in factories required for the expanding Colonial building work and development. Early commercial potteries for high fired ceramics were set up like the Gwalior Potteries in Delhi and Bengal Potteries in Kolkota producing colorful table ware, vases, jars and figurines which become very popular. Subsequently, high fired production units for industrial, electrical and sanitary emerged. New technological expertise required trained Indians to run such units. In 1919, Sardar Gurcharan Singh, a geologist, was sent to Japan for such training by Delhi Potteries which produced mainly bricks and tiles. Eventually his exposure to non industrial ceramics in Japan led him to set up the pioneering Delhi Blue Art Pottery in 1952.

Other ceramist-potters took interest in Modern ceramic practices and travelled to Britain, Europe, United States and Japan like Nirmala Patwardhan, who was trained at Aacademis der Kunste, Stuttgart under Professor Ulrich Gunther(1957) and Raymond Finch at Winchcome, Henry Hammond at Farnham and Bernard Leach at St. Ives, U.K. (1961-63) becoming India's potter, glaze researcher and author. Primula Pandit, an early contemporary potter learnt from Gurcharan Singh in 1957, travelling to learn from Bernard Leach in St. Ives (1958), before going on scholarship to study under Maja Grotteeli at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan, U.S.A. After returning to Mumbai she set up the Indian Studio Potters' Association and held numerous workshops. Mansimran Singh worked as an apprentice with Bernard Leach in St. Ives in the 1960s and learnt from Geoffrey Whiting in the UK. On his return, he joined Sardar Gurcharan Singh, his father at the Delhi Blue Art Pottery which had become a major center for the training of potters and giving considerable encouragement to the pottery movement. Shree Krishnamuthy Mirmira, set up Rural Pottery Training Center at Bhadravati and worked with rural potters introducing glazing techniques using local clay at the Gramodaya Sangh in Maharastra. Mirmira too had gone to Japan a few times in the early 1960s. All of them encouraged, exposed and expanded scope of ceramic practice and technigues suited to evolving needs of aspiring students from different parts of India. Their approach to techniques, glazes and function of forms centered on the ideals of oriental functional combined with western methods and techniques.

Post independence era saw new vigour and enthusiasm to refurbish the old departments in existing institutions and centers as well as setting up new centers of excellence and facilities. The Pottery department at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda was set up by Bashap Baruah in the late 1950s who had returned from his exposure of the progressive Stoke on Trent Potteries in Britain. He was assisted by Poona Khima, a traditional Potter. After Baruah's brief stay, Kumud Patel, a young painter turned potter took charge. As opposed to her range of glazed functional ware, she made miniature pots exploring ideas of the pot. In the early 1970s Jyotsma Bhatt, joined the pottery department on her return from the U.S.A. Her interest in pottery as sculptural forms made by wheel thrown shapes developed into combined methods of making animals and birds. Then, Fine Arts pottery department offered non-collegiate certificate courses attracting a number of students to work and experiment with pots and glazes.

In 1967, Kalindi Jena headed the pottery department at the Banaras Hindu University and turned it into a major center of studio pottery. This school became synonymous with finely thrown and beautifully glazed stoneware showing influence of oriental brush work. Gharhi Studios were set up by the Lalit Kala in New Delhi by 1976 with well equipped studios and high firing kiln facilities. Ira Chaudhuri had already learnt pottery when she lived in Vadodara but started working with stoneware in Gharhi, creating her own decorative style using the sgraffito technique. Modernity of Indian explorations in ceramics depended upon availability of raw materials to make high temperature white clay bodies from different ceramic industries around the post independence art schools and centers. Coloring pigments, glaze materials and kiln techniques were procured from helpful industries and traders. As the ceramic industry advanced, the ceramists gained from increased possibilities of use in the medium.

Decades before studio pottery and ceramics gained desirable momentum, Sardar Gurcharan Singh had the first ever solo exhibition of studio pottery by an Indian artist in Mumbai (1954). Beautifully glazed stoneware articles were fired in his kiln and were priced modestly to encourage use in daily life. Over the period of time, an educated section of Indian society had begun to patronize indigenous arts and crafts including all kinds of mosaics and murals as can be seen in such works of Satish Gujaral and K. G. Subramanyan. Few Indian galleries started exhibiting work of modern potters. Later in the 1970s, ceramic as a specialised art evolved increasingly to include non functional and sculptural ceramics.

In the last quarter of 20th century, Indian ceramics expanded from the personal initiative of some artist potters and public as well as private patrons. Centers like Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal were set up in 1982. Mansimran and Mary Singh started the Andretta Pottery and craft society in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh making earthenware pottery in 1984. Golden Bridge Pottery was set up in Pondicherry by Deborah Smith and Ray Meeker in 1971 making stoneware tableware influencing resultant mushrooming of potteries in and around Auroville. Their commitment in teaching students since 1983 has made it a dynamic center in ceramics.

Brahmdeo Ram Pandit coming from a traditional potter family advanced from apprenticeship to new techniques in the Khadi and Village Industries' Commission Pottery Trust Center in Bihar. He established his B.R. Pandit Studio Pottery in Bhayander near Mumbai since the 1970s and makes glazed bonsai trays, tiles and also exhibits pots in contemporary galleries.

In the last decade of the 20* Century a new support of patronage in ceramic making evolved. In the 19905 Ceramic Center in Vadodara as well as Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi were set up augmenting crucial development of ceramics as an art form for the artists through various residencies, interactive workshops and camps.

In the new millennium, contemporary ceramics has metamorphosed from the early ideals of purely functional to variable ideas of non-function, decoration and sculptural expression suited to the contemporary voice.

Ideas of conventional craft and skill associated with ceramics and the restrictive nature of the material affecting scale has been broken as new ideas are expressed in multiples, assemblages, mixed media installations and objects. Growing awareness and understanding has extended possibilities for a burgeoning number of artists to experiment, explore and enjoy creative freedom. Increasing interest in ceramics as an art form in the urban visual culture should necessitate viewers, connoisseurs and public to appreciate its past legacy but applaud its legitimate contemporary contribution.