I do not believe that ‘what is useful is essentially inferior to what is not.’ Therefore I am not afraid to make pots for use. But I am also a coward. Because I do not consider myself the best judge of my work I hide behind utility to give my work more reason d’etre.
I take my work seriously so I can afford to take myself not too seriously—no one else does either.
It is with characteristic tongue-in-cheek, that Ira Chaudhuri makes such deprecatory comments on the significance of her work. But indeed, it is equally to protect it against mystification on the one hand and against an ‘exaltation’ into hierarchy of ‘artistic expression’, on the other. Remaining thus, within seemingly undemanding parameters she finds the freedom to explore the expectations of virtuoso that the studio potter may often be put to. She finds her expression through the innate limitation/potential of her medium rather than in spite of it. It is also admirably through the constrains of her discipline that she is able to evoke the resonance of the design of other crafts, from other cultures – significantly folk and tribal. And it is I this that her significance in contemporary studio pottery in India is singular. “I am not so cleaver with my hands as some ceramists,” she tries to account for the absence of art for virtuoso’s sake. That a ceramist’s skills are actually multiple – not just sleight of hand – is what a cross-section of her repertoire does indeed explicate. The card up Ira Chaudhuri’s sleeve is her mental agility in bringing to call inputs as varied as the traditional craftsman’s diligent skill, a chemist’s acumen in understanding materials and a visual sensibility developed in Santiniketan. She integrates these diverse resources to transgress stereotyped confines, without seeming to do so.
The utilitarian aspect of pottery remains Ira’s touchstone. Besides a temperamental need for the rigor that utility enforces-no exhibition of hers has been complete without a quantum of cups, pots and sets that she would like to see used-it has also given an ideational structure to her idiom. It is through the function of a pot that she reaches out to an understanding of its form; and in that way links herself to the traditions of the pottery of the past and even to the traditions of contemporary pottery in the west.
Ira Vakil Chaudhuri was born in Santiniketan; her parents who were involved in the educational-cultural aspect of the nationalist movement lived there between 1925 and 1929 where her father taught English. She returned to Viswabharati in 1945 to study art at Kalavbhavan at a time when through praxis and dialogue the issue of cultural nationalism, of Asian internationalism modernism were laid open and the questions of indigenizing modernism were being probed. Ira met and married sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri. They moved to Baroda in 1951 where Sankho taught at the newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts, investing it with the ethics and ideologies acquired at Santiniketan. At Baroda the impulse to discover new cultural frontiers found impertus. Access of the rich rural and tribal heritage of Gujarat led to curiosity about the ‘other’ cultures in India and across the world. Ira travelled with Sankho when she could, between raising her three children and keeping an open house to her extended family- -students and friends from the community of artists at Baroda. It was also during these years that goaded on by Sankho she grew more and more interested in pottery. She taught herself the craft-however and whenever she could. “Since I have had very little formal training, I have too many teachers to acknowledge. I have learnt from every potter I have observed and many whom I have not.” She picked up basics of earthenware from Kumbhar Pooranbhai Khimabhai, the old traditional potter who used to double as life-study model and as tutor at the pottery studio. From friends in the chemistry department she learnt about oxide-and against Poorankaka’s advice and much to his surprise—tried out some slips on the earthenware. Reading taught: books and publications opened horizons. She also acquired know-how from the Parashuram Potteries people, of the best-established ceramic factories in Gujarat, known all over the country for their brown and white ware. In late fifties, the Faculty of Fine Arts acquired an electric kiln. Ira had tried out a few glazes even before basav Barua (a trained ceramist fresh from the Central School of Art in London) came to teach at Baroda in 1959. The next few years were fruitful. There was an exchange of knowledge with architect-ceramist Nari Gandhi whenever he visited from Bombay. When Barua left, Ira taught for a year and since has remained mentor and associate to the generation of younger ceramists who and associate to the generation of younger ceramists who learnt at Baroda: Jyatsana Bhatt and Daroze Pangurangaiah amongst them.
The Chaudhuris moved to Delhi in 1970 and Ira began work at the Garhi studios. Stonware gave her creativity a longer leash. She tried all kinds of glazes and has developed about 20 for her use. Her pleasure in ceramic chemistry contributes significantly to her innovation process, to her rage in improvisation – substituting ingredients and trying out new combinations. The experimentation is not only with technique: discovering and developing intrinsic structural relationship between embellishment and form has been her major preoccupation. Whereas line is of abiding importance to Ira, the growth of her forms precludes a reductive formalism. Through the inbuilt discipline or logic of their genre the basic forms that she had developed contain a propensity for ornament that is life endowing. “In pottery you don’t have to worry about the work becoming too beautiful,” Ira says. That is true: one would agree enviously – but all the more true because she has located a language wherein the ornamental or decorative is contained as a component of structure. This is nowhere better achieved than in her incised stoneware; which constitutes one-third of her total oeuvre but is perhaps her most ambitions.
Influences that Ira cherishes from pre-Columbian, Oceanic and the ‘primitive’ pottery are evoked along with aspects of traditional Indian design in textile, basketry, jewelry or domestic and ritual ornamentation. For the full flay of these inspirations she invents an imaginative ‘katai’ technique to contain the graphic contours and surfaces of an individualized idiom of ornamentation. She uses a brown body that gives a warm color in the often-large areas of unglazed surface. Judicially places bands of design enhance, rather than detract, from the line of the pot. These are incised with intricate designs, often with a complex gestalt, but always free hand-improvised as the hand moves across the surface of the pot with simple incision tools. She activates surface and form with a serial play of indented, scraped, scratched graphic, even simulating symmetry at times, but usually breaking the symmetry within the logic of its code. The bands of design emphasize elevations and contours, define edges, sometimes repeating themselves across the body of the work, sometimes breaking out in larger motifs enacting ‘solos’ in the interactive spaces created by the ensemble. Ira thus finds in the form of a pot, vessel or bowl, the space for articulate visual imagery, and concomitantly, for the evocation of other cultures, and of nature. The starfish, for instance, admired during a stay in Dar-es-Salam for its design logic – the growth of scale through concentric pattern in a rounded form – has become one of the key motifs in the development of Ira’s designing pleasures. She enjoys repetition: as it present in naure, allowing for mutation. And as it is enjoyed by the keen traditional craftsman to lay the tana-bana for improvisation.
Graphic devices do not diminish the role of color in Ira’s range of work. It is used within the same framework of function, of formal need emerging from the logic of the pot and from that it acquires its potency. Color is resplendent, delicate, sensuous, radiant, saturated or nuanced in the range of glazes because she has an acute understanding of its need, and equally, a deep pleasure is in its use. The myriad experience evoked many recall pleasures as varied as encounters with ritual objects or a seed and kernel, a betel-nut or Mexican textiles, a sari-pallav or Miro abstraction, churning butter or spangled sea-spray, the animated geometry of a kolam or the landscape imagery of Kashmiri lacquer work.