Pottery and I

Ira Chaudhuri 1995

I am not one of those who can claim that I was always fascinated by pottery. I was not. I trained to be a painter only to realize that I was not going to be one. When I married Sankho Chaudhuri and went to live in Baroda in 1951, I had no clue to pottery nor was I particularly interested.

The newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts was full of enthusiasm. Markand Bhatt, the Dean and organizer, had, during his stay in the United States, picked up the “pottery wave” in the West. He installed an old traditional potter—Sri Puna Khima— in the outhouses of the bungalow (of Louis Bromfield of The Rain Came fame!), which housed the college. Pottery was an elective subject and was a part of the Sculpture Department (probably because of the use of clay)! Sankho who headed the Sculpture Department also was enthusiast about pottery and the need for it to develop in India. I was almost pushed into joining it. At that time there was a system of non-collegiate students who could come and go as they liked. I remained one of them until we were in Baroda.

I am not one of those who can claim that I was always fascinated by pottery. I was not. I trained to be a painter only to realize that I was not going to be one.

Punabhai would center a lump of clay on the bicycle chain driven wheels we had, and ask us to throw. It took us some time to realize that this would not do and asked him to let us do our own centering, which he thought was not quite the thing for “ladies” but we persisted and what looked so simple when he did it, was very difficult for us. After wobbling along without center lumps we did finally get the hang of it. Since then I have been able to help a lot of people having difficulty with centering by explaining orally—but since Punabhai could not, we did learn the hard way.

We did, however, have a rather good earthenware clay—we made pots, burnished them and fired them in a simple red brick up–draft kiln—sometimes blackening them with smoke under Punabhai’s guidance. We knew nothing of other clays, normal additives, leave alone about glazes. All the same, I became addicted to it and in spite of having to take off a couple of years each time I had my three children and other domestic restrains. I missed not doing it and I still do.

Our collective ignorance about pottery was phenomenal. We had not even heard of Bernard Leach. We had no books on pottery except some on ancient Chinese pottery but nothing that provided any practical help. With the help of a science student, I managed to find some books on industrial chemistry that had a chapter on ceramic chemistry. It was from that book that I made a great “discovery” that some metal oxides were the colorants in pottery. We had some white-firing stoneware clay that Punabhai got from Than in Saurashtra. Fired in our little kiln—especially without any fluxing agent, the pots were sadly unfired—but specifically because of that the burnishing remained (it does not at stoneware temperatures). The pots looked quite nice with a sort of ivory finish. Every new step was at the time a matter of jubilation that was shared by many, even outside our little department. When I got a small quantity of oxides from the very sympathetic chemistry professor and mixed it with clay and water and invited people to paint, many joined the fun. Punabhai kept on warning us that dyes diaper in firing—we assured him that these would not, but he kept smirking behind his considerable moustaches. He anyway thought we were all crazy—and to our great joy the decoration in chalky hues stayed!

Then somewhere along the line electric kiln was ordered from an advertisement in the studio magazine. No one had the slightest idea what to ask for—so finally a kiln, moderately priced, of moderate size, and firing up to a moderate temperature was ordered from England. This restricted us to earthenware albeit well fired. After a lot of misadventure with the import license, customs, etc., it arrived and was installed. A friend sent me, from Sweden, the only book in English he could find on pottery—which opened up a few more possibilities. One of the ladies working with us managed to get some small packets of prepared glazes from Germany and we glazed happily while they lasted.

Now that we had a kiln, a gentleman from the local brick factory came as a part time lecturer and tried his hand at teaching us to glaze. He was bit of a novice himself and damaged our prized kiln by trying to make frit in it. He also brought an edge–runner for mixing glazes that was a fancy piece of equipment but did nothing, which a mortar and pestle couldn’t do. But some sort of glazes did emerge—through very undependable, blistering and crackling. After that, another gentleman came from the same factory. He was much more knowledgeable and articulate and we started getting some idea about glazes and some of the materials that went it. He thought we were too primitive in our clay making and ordered a filter press that never worked! We also managed to acquire a pot–mill and a ball–mill, which are still in use in the pottery department.

I had, during this period of great frustration and helplessness visited sardar Gurucharan Singh’s Blue Potteries while on a visit to Delhi. How I wished I could stay in Delhi and learn! Sardarji very kindly showed me around the pottery and invited me to try their kick wheel. This one had aboard to sit, on which there was a hole through which you put one leg through to reach the fly–wheel. I was wearing a sari—so I had to politely decline!

Our real breakthrough came when Bashab Kumar Barua—known as Buddha—came newly qualified from England and joined the pottery department at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda.

Our real breakthrough came when Bashab Kumar Barua—known as Buddha—came newly qualified from England and joined the pottery department at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. Apart from methods and techniques, he opened the aesthetics of pottery. Not in so many words, because he was an excellent potter with impeccable taste. He lived with us at the time and told me a lot about British potters. It was from him that I first also able to subscribe to a journal of pottery from England—though it stopped being published after a year. However from this I became acquainted with the work of Lucie Rai, apotter from whom I have great admiration. (Being able to visit her at her studio as well as the Leach Potteries, and potters such as Frank Hamer, Ray Finch and others was to me, in 1985 the high point of life as a potter. Bernard Leach of course had died by then. I considered Bernard Leach my “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.” “guru” (Eklavya style) but Licie Rie my heroine!

Buddha also had some books with him, which he lent us, and I read them most avidly. At last work started in real earnest, Buddha never “taught” me anything, as I was a kind of an aunt—as his mother was a friend of the family. I had to extract information and help from him, which he gave willingly. Having trained in England where equipping a pottery is more a matter of resources; he was rather bewildered by the Indian situation and the bureaucracy of the university system. It took him some time to adjust to this and also to win over Punabhai who resented a new boss with new ways. By then, our bicycle–chain wheels had become quite impossible, so he got a couple of treadle operated wheels made where you stood on one foot and worked the treadle with the other. It was not quite the most confortable way of throwing, but a very great improvement on the old wheels! Towards the end of his stay, Budhha also had an electric wheel made. It was delivered after he left, but it gave us shocks and had to be abandoned. He also built a round domed down–draft kiln—but because the right kind of insulation could not be produces, it did not fire to stoneware temperatures but did better at biscuiting pots and had to be fired half full became there was no kiln furniture.

In this way, the pottery department was cluttered with a piece of unserviceable equipment by each successive person, but there was no recrimination on the part of the faculty administration on the part of the faculty administration. There was the part of the faculty administration. There was the very positive acceptance of the fact that in a pioneering field, misadventures are inevitable and one learns only by not being afraid of making mistakes.

Buddha married a French girl and went away to France just as he was finding his feet after five years of struggling. He had just had a very successful show in Bombay. His going away was a great loss, as, had he stayed the department would have grown with him.

Meanwhile my friend Nirmala Patwardhan had taken to pottery. After her stint at Stuttgrat she came back to India armed with a small kiln and in her relentless way struggled against every odd. She devised a very good kick wheel, which is very widely used now though few know the debt we owe to her. She went abroad many times and worked with some very distinguished potters including Bernard Leach and Ray Finch. Whenever she was back from one of her trips, I too would learn something new. Over the year she has become one of our very well known potters and a formidable glaziest and has shared her knowledge through the book she has published.

In 1951 I worked for a month with Mr. Moech—a German ceramic chemist who was brought to train people at the Handicrafts Board Centre at Uday Villa near Calcutta. Subsequently Nirmala and Shri K. V. Jena also worked with him and some of his glazes are still in circulation. At the time I could make use of only a small part of the information I received from him because a lot of his work was for high temperatures and fritted earthenware glazes—as in Baroda we never did get around to building a frit kiln.

After Buddha left India, I had charge of the pottery for nearly a year until Kumund Patel—also his student—could take over. After that, Nari Gandhi, an architect who had trained under Frank Lloyed Wright, came to Baroda as visiting faculty in the Department of Architecture. He was a very good potter as well, and having him at the pottery department was like a breath of fresh air as he was both highly innovative as well as extremely kind and helpful. Both he and Buddha died in the past couple of years, much before their time.

After we came to Delhi I was not able to work for six months until Garhi studios started. By serendipity we were able to get an electric kiln firing up to stoneware temperatures and a pug–mill as gift from UNESCO. This was a great release as far as I was concerned and I switched over to stoneware even if I had to teach myself. Except for two short stints at Banaras and Santinikentan I have not done any earthenware since.

I feel happier if people want to use a pot rather put it in showcase.

It was only 1979 that I had my first solo exhibition but have been exhibiting more or less regularly. It was around that time I started doing graffito and I still do a lot of it—in a way it is “my thing.” I have predilection for simple shapes aiming (not always achieving) strength of line and then enhance them with decoration—but do not always decorate. I am not for anti–decoration. I give a great deal of thought of where the decoration will be—and what the undecorated areas will look like. I like to leave parts of pots unglazed for which I use tinted clay. I do a lot of banding—plain or patterned. I feel that appropriately placed bands enhance a pot. I also do some inlaid decoration and scooped out patterns. My greatest inspiration is his has been folk and tribal design—Indian, pre–Columbian, Oceanic, etc.—not form there pottery necessarily, but from all manner of things. I do not copy any designs but I get a kind of nourishment from them. Sometimes in a playful vein I do some agateware or somewhat sculpturesque pots, but always pots.

I believe in doing utilitarian pots even of at times it gets a bit of a grind. I make a fair amount of tableware. Utility is a very good raison d’etre and its parameters are good for discipline in work. It also reaches out the non-art–buying people. I feel happier if people want to use a pot rather put it in showcase.

I experimented with glazes to a limited extent. It is a challenge, which can get addictive and there is a danger of losing sight of the pot on which it is meant to go. My goal is a “complete pot.” I think of a pot in its final state right from the beginning. I do not believe in throwing pots at random and then sit down to think what will go on it. This is not to say is the inly correct or right way of working but is how I feel about it.

I also make series, at a time, or over several years of a given form, varying it in size, proportions, textures, glazes and decorations. As I grow older and fell that I have a few years of active work left, there is a tug of war between what I enjoy doing and what I think I should be doing for good discipline as I still consider myself a learner. I am not blessed with nimble fingers or natural craftsmanship and whatever I have achieved in that department is by constantly kicking myself and trying to make up with my head what my hands lack.

The Garhi studios have been a boon to me and to many others, who could not have worked otherwise. Some may have found their feet here and gone on to making their own facilities. The situation with studio pottery is still a difficult one in our country. Hardly anyone is able to make a decent living form making individual pots. You have either to teach—for which there are limited openings or have workshop (if you have the resources, energy, and inclination to have one) where you employ people. This again in view of our market demand becomes more like a small industry rather than a studio situation. The fine line between a successful profession and business has to be understood. Daroz, whom I consider the most talented (and not unworldly) potter in India, survives without doing any of these perhaps because he makes murals.

There is also a dearth of teaching institutions. Baroda Universitystill has pottery only as an elective minor subject though it is lucky to have person Jyotsana Bhatt’s talents. Banaras Hindu University is the only place to my knowledge that has both a graduate and post graduate program and has K.V. Jena heading it. After completing training potters have difficulty in finding a place to work as pottery in space and equipment intensive and unless one has resources working in a “pay and work” place is the only alternative. Equipment is mostly custom made which makes it expensive and is sometimes not very efficient. Materials and minerals are available but not always in quantities a small studio would want. I is only when the number of potters increases manifold that we will have pottery shops selling everything under one roof. Space is a big problem in an urban situation. In western countries most potteries are in country but this is hardly possible in out country, especially for woman potters who often is a wife and is where her family is. In these situations, place like community studios fill a great need.

Consequently, particularly in the earlier days there has been a preponderance of woman in pottery—who did not have to earn their livelihood. Some of them who had been living for a period abroad had taken some training and acquired some equipment. Gauri Khosla was one of these who became a serious potter, and later turned into ceramic sculpture. She was able to set up a studio and won much acclaim before her untimely death last year.

I never tire of pushing the cause of studio pottery in India, I never miss an opportunity of doing so.

Since the advent of the Golden Bridge pottery is Pondicherry, a new band of really well trained potters have emerged. Some of them have set up their own studios and are doing impressive work. Golden Bridge also make large range of ware available at reasonable prices which ha greatly enhanced the awareness for pottery—which has, over the year, been slowly by steadily growing. There are few collectors of pottery, but people who use pottery are growing in number, even if real cognoscenti are few and far between. This does allow, often, very indifferent work to pass muster. There is also a lack of informed criticism. As more activity is generated in time, it is to be hoped that good knowledgeable critics of pottery too will emerge.

I never tire of pushing the cause of studio pottery in India. I never miss an opportunity of doing so. I try my best to dispel the impression that potters mint money—they do not. Some people complain about prices. I think we are getting underpaid. This happens because studio pottery has not got its legitimate place in our art scene. It is often dismissed as something inferior, because pots can be used. Even a very indifferent piece of ceramic sculpture fetches a better price than a really good pot.

Tableware of course is the most lowly. As Krishen Khanna once said that what is useful is not necessarily inferior to what is not. The quest for form, texture, color, tactile feeling, graphic arrangement, etc. is as significant in pottery as in other forms of art. The addition of constrains—making a vessel for a given function—only adds an additional challenge. As every potter knows to his cost—a good tea pot is one of the most difficult things to make.

This, as I have mentioned at the outset is my story and not a researched article or a survey of pottery. The names I have mentioned are the people I had something to with or mentioned to illustrate a point. As I am fond of saying I have learnt something from every potter I’ve known—even if sometimes what not to do. I am indebted to them all.

All stories have an ending, I am still alive and kicking the wheel, which is the happiest ending, I can think of.

Glossary of pottery terms

Agate ware: Different colored clays used together to produce a pattern or “marbling”.

Biscuit: Pottery fired to a lower than final temperature to make it manageable for glazing.

Earthenware: Low fired (800 – 1200 C) pottery. Mostly, but not always using red firing clays.

Flux: A group pf minerals or chemicals which bring down the temperature of maturing or melting of a mixture. In pottery, silica and alumina which by themselves are very high firing and are present in clays. Silica is also the glass former for glazes.

Frit: A part of a glaze which is melted before addition to rest of the glaze into a glassy substance and powdered. This stabilizes many unstable fluxes which are inconvenient to use raw. It also neutralizes substances which are toxic, like the lead based chemicals. A given fit can be used for variety of glazes as a flux.

Glazing: Depositing a layer of gloss on the pot. Unlike a very common misconception this has nothing to do with gloss. A glaze may be glossy, matte, rough or smooth or even cratered or crackled.

Inlay: Introducing tinted clay into indentation made on raw pots or inversely white clay on a colored clay body to create a pattern.

Sgraffito: Pattern produced by laying a colored slip on a pot and scratched out to reveal the clay under it.

Slip: A slurry of clay mixed with water and other additives as needed.

Stoneware: Pottery fired above 1200 C.