From purely functional to evocative art, ceramic pottery in India is expanding its horizons and learning to straddle the two domains. What started out as functional craft for the home, making pots, pans and carafes has become a canvas for artists to explore ideas, experiment with forms and push the envelope just a little. Like most traditional arts and crafts, pottery too has always been a way of artistic expression, a re-assertion of identity and now it is becoming something you would proudly display instead of relegating to an obscure corner in the kitchen. Gradually morphing into an expressive art form, pottery is coming of age.
Right after the invention of the wheel, humans probably realized its potential as a utensil maker and examples of beautiful, well-formed pottery has been found in excavations at Indus valley sites. Although traditional potters now only exist in smaller towns and the interiors of the country, most are still using ancient techniques and producing unglazed products for daily use, like matkis (a water storage pot), gamlas (flower pots), gullaks (piggy banks), kulhars (indigenous tea mugs of various sizes) and diyas (tea-lights) in rugged shades of red, russet and auburn.
But there is a clear trend towards contemporary ceramic art that includes daily use objects, home décor pieces as well as sculptures. Messing with clay, creating new shapes and perhaps ending up with something useful…the allure of working with clay is not too hard to figure for amateur potters. But why would someone opt to sit on a potter’s wheel all day long and do this for a living? Rohit Kulkarni of Pune-based Curators of Clay tells us, “I love being a potter. There's something incredibly satisfying about working with one's hands to create something beautiful, useful and somehow peaceful. I dreamed about living a life that lets me work largely in the open, in contact with the real, natural world and I love the fact that pottery lets me live this outdoorsy life that I've always craved.” Curators of Clay is a boutique ceramic studio run by Rohit Kulkarni and Bhairavi Naik that creates bespoke functional ceramics from tableware to home décor.
Ronak Dandia who founded the Jaipur-based Studio Asao along with Rujutaa Joshi in 2013 has a different take on why he got into pottery. He says, “With a design background, we both worked with traditional potters in villages and also got a chance to see how large industrial-scale ceramics are made and sold and realized two things. One that the traditional potter never gets his financial dues and two, that no matter how well a product is designed, the gap between the cookie-cutters and authentic ones will always show and that is why this is an art worth preserving. Working exclusively with traditional potters, we hope to do just that while creating something fun and beautiful that fits perfectly in a modern home.”
But is it still functional or can it be considered art now? Rohit Kulkarni says, “I would say Indian pottery is largely functional and utilitarian - the art bit is incidental. I think our skill and talent towards making functional, useful pottery is incredible, but I believe we need to work ahead to create a specific aesthetic in the way Japanese or Korean pottery does”.
While molded, machine-made ceramics meet a bigger demand and fulfil a very important need in the market, hand thrown, artisanal ceramic products that are consumed just for the joy and beauty they bring to our lives and homes are already on an upward swing. The Indian market for consuming pottery as art is nascent but there is a big space to grow into. Ronak Dandia tells us, “Our experience in India has been that people are ready to experiment. Perhaps not so much in smaller cities, but if you go to large urban centers, people are willing to pay the big buck for artisanal pottery that was made purely to serve the senses. And this willingness will grow with more education on what ceramic pottery is”.
There are incredible innovations taking place in the field of ceramics – 3D printing, cutting-edge technologies for production and improved printing technology. It would help if studio potters adopted some of these techniques to service the growing contemporary ceramics market. This blending of new age techniques with an age old art is an opportunity waiting to be grabbed and spells good things for this updated version of traditional Indian pottery.
For more information, please visit www.jaypore.com.
Image credits: Curators of Clay, Tamagna Ghosh, Ashok Captain , Studio Asao, Jaypore.