The potter’s quiet dignity

Ella Datta 2001

She sits at the wheel in the crowded dusty barn of a ceramic workshop of the Garhi Studios of the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. The diminutive fireball is at this moment still. Studio potter Ira Chaudhuri is completely focused on the lump of clay that she is gently forming into a large pot.

Earlier she had taken me round to see the pots, bowls, vases and plates that she has already made for her first show with Art Heritage Gallery in Delhi. Now, at this moment of creation, all the energy is tightly coiled within her as she stretches out her arms to embrace the pot that is slowly taking shape, just as a mother fondly restrains a child. She smooths the form with cool splashes of water, moulds the neck narrow it down a little, and lets the rim flare out gracefully.

Ira Chaudhuri is busy doing what she loves best – messing around with clay, evolving forms, decorating them. It has been a long journey, –half a century of fun and excitement producing beautiful pots and stamping them with a distinctive style. Ira Chaudhuri is one of the few studio potters in India who has been able to create her own signature and I am not talking about the three little scratches at the bottom of the vessel, which is her hallmark.

An Ira Chaudhuri pot, vase, platter or anything else has a strong, classical shape. In the sweep of the lines, the graceful curves, the firm grip, the vitality of the form.

A Chaudhuri pot, vase, platter or anything else that she makes has a strong, classical shape. In the sweep of the lines, the graceful curves, the firm grip, the vitality of the form, her work recalls the verve of the best of primitive traditions, be they Harappan terracotta or pre Columbian pottery. The glazes and colors have an earthy feel – browns, greys, blues, and mottled polychrome effects.

But the felicity of handling material and decoration was not easily archived. According to her own account of the initial learning period, the training had a hit-and-miss character to it. She had trained to be a painter at Kala Bhavana in Shantiniketan. After her marriage to sculptor Shankho Chaudhuri, she went to live in Baroda where Shankho headed the Sculpture department in the newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts. The Dean, Markand Bhatt, started pottery as an elective subject within the sculpture department and installed a traditional potter, Puna Khima, to teach the basic techniques. It was Shankho Chaudhuri, a pottery enthusiast, who prodded his wife to join the new course. Initially, Chaudhuri resented the urgings, but gave in finally. And she has never looked back ever since.

Having mastered the traditional techniques of pot making under Puna Khima’s guidance, she became addicted to the medium. However, facilities in Baroda to learn more sophisticated techniques were inadequate. According to Chaudhri, “Our collective ignorance about pottery was phenomenal.” Gentlemen from the local brick factory came to teach glazes. There was hardly any equipment in the pottery section, Chaudhuri had to teach herself many of the intricacies from books on industrial chemistry and similar technical literature.

Things improved dramatically when Bashab Kumar Barua, trained in Englad, joined the pottery department in Baroda. Barua could open new doors in methods, techniques and aesthetics of pottery. It was from him that Chaudhuri learned about the big names in studio pottery like Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. She had once said, “I consider Bernard Leach my ‘guru’ (Eklavya style) but regard Lucie Rie as my heroine!”

The learning process seemed to be a self-motivated exercise where contributions from anyone mattered. It must be remembered that studio pottery in India was in its infancy then. There was Gurucharan Singh experimenting with blue pottery in Delhi. In Calcutta, Ashish and Christine Jana had started “Vallauris”. But these products were not strictly studio pottery. They were more in the nature of pottery lines. There was also Devi Prasad hard at work at the wheel at Sewagram. Likewise, Nirmala Patwardhan who learnt pottery at Stuttgart and struggled to master the craft. She travelled abroad frequently and brought back information form which Chaudhuri also learnt something new. In 1959, she worked for a month with a German ceramic chemist, Moesch, who had been invited to train people at Uday Villa near Calcutta by Handicrafts Board. Chaudhuri says that some of the glazes that Moesch introduced are still in circulation.

Glazed ceramics played a marginal role n the great Indian Craft traditional role in the great Indian craft tradition. There were only pockets in Rajasthan where such ware had been produced. So Chaudhuri and few of her contemporaries were pioneers in a way. Laughingly, she says, “We were the offshoots of the Leach–Hamada revolution.”

Between 1963-64, Chaudhuri taught and held charge of pottery section at the Fine Arts Faculty at Baroda. Eventually, the Chaudhuris left that city and settled in Delhi. During the first years in Delhi, Chaudhri could not work as her children were growing up. But a ceramic workshop started at the Garhi studios of the Lalit Kala Akademi thanks to an electric kiln and a pug mill gifted by UNESCO. The Garhi studio was a great boon to Chaudhuri because now she had access to a kiln, which could fire, to the higher temperatures required for stoneware. Except for two short stints as an expert at Benares Hindu University in 1976,and at Sriniketan, Visva Bharati in 1978, Chaudhuri gave up doing earthenware.

Chaudhuri held her first solo exhibition in 1979. She taught pottery for a year at the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania. Since then Chaudhuri has dedicated herself to her creative work. She sits at her wheel regularly, works round the clock to watch her pieces being fired, and shows them informally when galleries do not sponsor her shows. In the process her distinctive works have become well known among collectors. Chaudhuri has always made utilitarian ware. She also says that she feels happier when a piece is put to use rather than places in a showcase. She sticks to a limited range of glazes because she feels that nothing should detract from the form of the object. She maintains that her goal is the  “complete pot.” She makes a certain amount of tableware and often works on a series of a give form. So you get beautifully fashioned tea-sets, urn-like pots, mugs, glasses, bowls and platters.

Chaudhuri gives a great deal of thought to each piece that she creates. She visualizes the final product in its entirety.

Occasionally, almost in a playful way, she experiments with crystal glazes or agateware. This last named is a compound of many colored clays rolled out flat and then molded. The result intriguing variegated form. But Chaudhuri’s forte is sgraffito with which she decorates her creations. These are scratchings on the wet clay. Often she jokes that it is a script of a lost civilization. After the scratchings have been lightly baked in what is called a biscuit, the sgraffito may be painted with a colored slip and then glazed. Chaudhuri also likes to do banding with clay and colored slips on which there may be some kind of decoration. Occasionally she provides some intricate inlaid decoration with colored clay. There can be many subtle variations. The glaze can be rough or smooth and gleaming. The end product has a mysterious, tantalizing quality.

Chaudhuri gives a great deal of thought to each piece she creates. She visualizes the final product in its entirety. Her decorations are minimalist, just enough to enhance the form. At the same time, she doesn’t neglect the sensuousness of tactile appeal. Just as musical from can only be appreciated in relation to the silence surrounding it, her undecorated surface serves a similar aesthetic function.

Chaudhuri is inspired by folk and tribal art. She loves their strength and vitality. Once she bought some traditional smoky black pots. They were beautiful and she used them to serve meals to her guests. To her dismay, the black soot kept coming off. She had not scrubbed them enough. Another time she was enchanted by a mithaiwalla’s large platter. And she paid him four times what is had cost so that she could keep it and study it.

But there is also another influence in Chaudhuri’s work, namely that of Santiniketan. Chaudhuri’s parents were well-known educationists who had lived in Santiniketan for quite a while. Chaudhuri grew up in that small university campus imbibing its special atmosphere. Later she studied painting there. It is no wonder that the understated aesthetics of Santiniketan left its stamp on her sensibilities. The organic rythms of nature, so important to Santiniketan’s design directory, rubbed off her visual language. And, above all, there were Rabindranath’s mysterious deeply haunting calligraphic patterns. All these find nuanced reflection in her style. But at the heart of it is the still centre of self, which finds expression in the quite dignity of her pots – spare, robust, undaunted.