‘Bridges’ was an exhibition of ceramics held at Stainless Gallery, New Delhi. This exhibition showcased the work of fifty studio potters who have trained with Deborah Smith and Ray Meeker at The Golden Bridges Pottery studio in Pondicherry.
Playful porcelain and pen doodles by Neha Kudchadkar reminiscent of containers defied the weightiness of them. Reyaz Badaruddin had flattened the cup. A hollow container, usually thrown on the wheel had been painted on flat clay tiles. Veena Chandran used a large, traditional earthen pot-form. But she flattened it out as if breaking the clay pot, and then smeared the moist clay with her hands in a gesture that sought to explore the potential of clay, beyond traditionally prescribed norms. Shayonti Salve’s thrown but altered forms were a reflection of the duality she experiences where, as she said: “my head is often tormented by the times we live in, while my heart tried to comfort it”
Pottery is one of the oldest art forms in India. Known as Prajapati or Kumbhar, the potter played a significant role in ancient society. However, potters no longer command the same reverence that was once accorded to them, nor do contemporary potters continue the tradition of making pots for daily use. “Today our students are about as interested in making functional stoneware as the sons of Indian village potters are interested in continuing in their fathers’ footsteps”, say Smith and Meeker. This quantum shift from the traditional, ‘form follows function’ approach, towards the more ornamental and conceptual approach in contemporary ceramics, where ‘ideas’ supersede ‘function’, makes an interesting comment on the social and cultural values of our time.
Golden Bridges, now a preeminent centre for ceramics, was set up in the mid 1970’s by Deborah Smith with her friend Ray Meeker, at the invitation of ‘The Mother’ spiritual head of the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Cited as an exhibition of ceramics rooted in the Golden Bridges tradition and a tribute to the influence of Meeker and Smith one expected to find a thread that knitted together the work on display. To the contrary, the diversity of scale and style belied the fact that each of the fifty potters had been trained by the same two ceramic artists and more particularly, were trained using a specialized wood-firing technique. Among the fifty potters participating, were Anjani Khanna, Michel Hutin, Aditi Saraogi, Manisha Bhattacharya, Adil Writer, Kristine Michael, Nehal Rachh, P. Daroz, Vineet Kacker and Sylvia Kerkar. Although primarily trained in making wood-fired studio-pottery, working in an urban context many of them have
explored gas and electric firings to evolve a differing aesthetic.
Michel Hutin, a Frenchman who has lived and worked in Auroville for over twenty-five years, joins soft, undulating slabs of clay such that the interacting lines create rhythm, melody and counterpoint. P. Daroz has a passion for seascapes. Drawing upon memories of trips to various coasts and cliffs, his ceramic pieces from the ‘Sea Bed’ series are abstract in their presentation. For Nehal Rach an advertising graduate, who found her calling working in clay, pottery is not just something she does, but says that clay-work defines her. Reyaz Badaruddin responds to urban spaces by evoking the disappearing fields of the agrarian landscape he grew up in. Each of these potters has moved beyond making a conventional vessel, to present abstract ideas where it is no longer about pots per se, but clay as art.
The local potter and ceramic artist co-exist, but the local potter is not an artist in the contemporary sense of the word. He is technically skilled but doesn’t employ self-expression which is the basis of much art today. Ironically, this facet once deemed “pitiable rather than heroic” in ancient India, as cited by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, is what is being keenly explored by contemporary ceramic artists. Pottery is essentially a skill-centric craft where the kind of clay used, kiln and techniques of firing, as well as glazes, play a significant role in the eventual product and how it looks. The firing process can be as intense as eighteen to seventy-five hours, with potters keeping vigil and maintaining logbooks. All of which is rarely mentioned in relation to exhibitions of clay work. In positioning ceramics within the context of contemporary art, the technical process employed is seemingly superseded by the concepts explored.
That the medium has evolved to transcend its functional origins, is a tribute to the creative minds that work with clay, as much as it is a yearning to bring attention and value to hands that have moulded earth into vessel for centuries. However, the expression of self in the works on display, did not articulate an exploration authentic enough, to speak the language of contemporary art.
[This exhibition was held in September 2014]