Tuesday, 26 September 2006

The Raku Mistress - A Portrait of Manisha Bhattacharya in Clay

Manisha Bhattacharya, affectionately named the ‘Raku’ mistress by her friends is a potter who goes beyond the restrictive qualities of pottery. She does not define herself merely as a potter, nor does she see herself as designer; but considers her work  more in the realm  as that of an artist-craftsman. She is not bound by pottery conventions even though her work does not necessarily break free of them either. A self-confessed ‘addict’ of working on the wheel, the vessel forms the basis of most of the objects she creates, but she treats the surface of each vessel like a canvas. Working primarily in black and white, she manipulates the smoke on her pots, like a painter paints with a brush.

Pottery is an ancient craft of the Indian subcontinent and archaeological evidence dates its practice as far back as 4000 BC. Writing on the industrial arts of India in 1880, with reference to the potter, Sir George Birdwood has commented, that: “He is, in truth, one of the most useful and respected members of the community, and in the happy religious organization of village life there is no man happier than the hereditary potter, or kumhar.”

He supplied the entire village community, as well as the traveller, with pitcher, cooking pans and jars for storing grains, spices and salt. In addition he also made bricks and tiles.
A potter in ancient India is said to have enjoyed the dignity of certain ceremonial and honorific offices and earned enough through his work to be classified as rich. Many religious and political revolutions came and went as did the Greeks, Scythian, Afghans, Mongols, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French and Dane, but the religious trade union villages remained virtually unaffected. The village potter sat at his wheel which was of the “simplest and rudest kind”, amid all these shocks and changes, “steadfast and inchangeable for 3,000 years”.
Mechanization, electricity and modern industrial practices, have provided the consumer with more durable products available off-the-shelf, to overtake the business which was once monopolized by the local potter. Development has eroded the pride of place craftsmen held in the social and industrial hierarchy and hand-crafted produce has ‘novel’ and ‘exotic’ connotations today, as opposed to being considered the necessity they once were. While the village potter whose work has thus been devalued, makes do with a frustrated and frugal existence; the studio potter is perhaps finding a way to combat and overcome the blows dealt to the tradition of hand-crafting. Studio pottery is relatively new to India: pioneered by Sardar Gurcharan Singh of Delhi Blue Pottery in the 1920’s, ceramic artists are slowly finding awareness and appreciation for their work through exhibitions and retailing through designer stores.

At one level, a potter is a potter so what sets apart a potter like Manisha Bhattacharya from the local kumhar? Is it her education? Is it her world exposure? Is it the challenge of our times? Can Manisha and other contemporary potters really provide an alternative to the local kumhar or has the tradition of pottery undergone such a sea of change that we cannot turn the wheel to recast that mould?

Manisha is aghast at the sheer audacity of the idea, that studio potters could ever replace the local kumhars. She says that other than the medium and the love and feel that they have for it, their paths do not even cross. Each caters for a completely different niche market, with its own sense of aesthetics, sensibilities and needs. Bengali by birth, brought up in a ‘liberal’ environ, in North Delhi, Manisha represents a generation that does not bear the hallmark trauma of partition; or the identity ridden angst of those who grew up with a desire to define Indian as being apart from the rest of the world, as a rebuttal to years of colonization. She is as much at ease in the Sunder bans as she is in New York City or elsewhere in the world. This is reflected in the vessels she creates, in the marks she makes and those she chooses to leave out of her canvas of clay.

She says she is lucky to be Bengali, for art was revered in the environment she grew up in and one of the games she and her siblings played was to identify whether a painting had been painted by Botticelli or Caravaggio etc. Her siblings are all involved in the arts in some form or another, even if it’s a second profession or hobby and these criteria all sum up to give her considerable moral support to invest precious energy in a field of art that is yet marginalized from the mainstream and may perhaps never quite be on par with painting, is the way that Bhattacharya perceives the work she does.

Being close to Mother Nature keeps her rooted. Working with clay, is like Vipassana for her; where with a little music – no words, with a single minded focus, she meditates as she kneads the clay. An essential and integral part of being a potter, it is perhaps the most boring aspect but leads to the making of the pot where Manisha comes into her element. Awakened to the power of her hand and her fingers; of how a push and a shove can completely alter or create a form in clay, there is a sense of fulfilment and completion, replete with a sense of being which is difficult to articulate. She is at home with clay. She revels in the turning of the wheel but she truly comes alive when she works with the glaze. Here Raku is the mistress.

Raku is essentially a traditional Japanese firing technique, which has intimate connections with the Japanese tea ceremonies. Tea masters found that the Zen principles of harmony, simplicity and restraint, which were integral to the tea ceremony, were best reflected in the style of pottery made by a Korean potter Chojiiro, whose parents had migrated to Japan. The characteristics of the Raku tea bowls as pioneered by Chojiiro , are their exclusive use of monochrome black or red glazes. 
Traditional Raku-wares are hand-formed rather than thrown on the wheel. Hand-forming increases the potential for modelling and allows the spirit of the artist to speak through the work with directness and intimacy. Through negation of movement, decoration and variation of form, Chojiiro went beyond individualistic expression to manifest an abstract spirituality, as works which represented a ‘monochromatic silence’. The term ‘Raku-yaki’ or Raku ware is derived from ‘Jurakudai’, which denotes architecture of the Momoyama period (late 16th century). 400 years later, the issues of spirituality and artistic consciousness as addressed by the pioneer of Raku are as valid and relevant as they were then, but Raku then and now has undergone a vast change.     

Although Raku has its antecedents in 16th century Japan, what Manisha does is called American Raku (even in Japan!). She has not had a ‘Japanese experience’ in Raku, so far, but what she has learned is not deemed by her to be second hand either. Its practice in the western world began when Bernard leach had his first encounter with Raku firing at a Raku party in Japan in 1911;later taken to great heights of popularity by Paul Soldner in the U.S. in the 1960’s. This practice however is not without its share of prejudice and controversy. Some believe that Americans cannot do Raku as the Emperor has not given them the permission to do so. But beyond the realm of philosophy, there is a technical difference. In Japan, after firing, the pots are dunked in water, while in the west; they are smoked in sawdust or other combustible material. The first employs oxidization and the other reduction. Manisha uses the latter, reducing her pots in sawdust.
Her Raku journey began in 1992 while working with Jane Hamlyn in U.K. It was the first time that she had seen Raku work of various artists and was deeply moved. Her present working in the black and white genre is done much along the lines of Dave Roberts’ technical style, with deeper influences by Wayne Higby, both artists whom she interacted with on this visit to the U.K. and whose work she admires immensely. But that was not where it all started. Manisha’s tryst with clay began 18 years ago
In the absence of institutional teaching in ceramics, most artists in India begin learning under practicing ceramic artists who also accept students. Manisha began her studies, in 1984 with Nirmala Patwardhan who in turn had trained under Bernard Leach and Ray Finch. Then in 1989 she went to study with Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith of California, who established the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry 25 years ago. She says that the two years she spent at Golden Bridge left a strong imprint “as one absorbed their Japanese influences, aesthetics and approach”. 
Her focus on Raku began in 1993. A yet uncharted style in India, she worked boldly: built a portable fibre kiln for herself and despite the missing guidance of a master, persisted by trial and error, taking inspiration from the works of those she admired, to evolve a style that we recognize unmistakably as the work of Manisha Bhattacharya. With her subtle expressions in black, white and grey she is in a league all of her own. 
For potters, their lineage and its roots can be traced as far back as 4000 BC. This, along with personal experience and exposure to practices that have influence in philosophy, style and technique from Japan to the United States, U.K. and Pondicherry, Manisha could well be over-awed or overwhelmed but contrarily, she has managed to bring together all those elements, including her own Bengaliness into being, to complement rather than dwarf her progress. It is difficult to identify where one starts and the other ends. Her work can hold its own anywhere in the world, for it speaks in a global voice. Manisha represents through her work, the contemporary artist whose roots are within the parameters of an ancient practice, but with appropriate references to and from the rest of the world. Unlike a painter, she has not cast aside the crafting tradition, what has changed is the way the work is perceived.
The work of Manisha Bhattacharya and other contemporary studio potters is no longer about providing for the essential needs of the community. Contrarily, their work is a luxury that few can afford. It straddles the realm between art and craft, between decoration and function. The entire tradition of pottery has come a long way away from the local kumhar who held position of pride in the local community, neither the studio potter nor the kumhar have the standing in society the traditional potter once did.
Manisha’s work uses a primarily ‘functional’ form, deliberately eliminating its ‘functional’ purpose to use the form as mere decoration. The inherent paradox is reflective of the predicament of a potter, whose inherited psyche is attuned to function, re-born in a world that perceives the mould as ornamental rather than functional. The understated, subtle and sophisticated artistic statement, which encompasses vast issues of debate with restraint and refinement of expression, is one of the most charming attributes of her work. The Japanese is influence evident. Even if the experience of making has not been tutored by a Japanese master; her aesthetic sensibility reflects the minimalist qualities embodied in the philosophy of Zen that deemed Raku appropriate for the ritual tea ceremonies in Japan. It is this that sets her apart from the otherwise ‘Indian’ influences with their predictable, emotionally led, exuberant and often overwhelmingly decorative qualities.