Just like potters, ceramic artists essentially work with clay, which is mixed with water, fashioned into a desired shape and then fired at high temperatures so that it hardens into that shape permanently. The firm association of ceramics with pottery—and more generally with objects of utility (such as tableware) or decoration (such as flower vases)—places the ceramic artist at a disadvantage. His or her work is viewed more as a “craft” than an “art”. One drawback is that while the base price for a painting by a new artist being shown at a gallery of some standing is usually Rs1 lakh and above, works by an established ceramic artist on average usually range from Rs5,000 to Rs20,000.
There are other hurdles. Ceramic shows are not very common because the works lose out on two counts—the relatively low prices of the works mean lower margins for the gallery and the fragile nature of the pieces means that the logistics of shipping and installing them is a more involved and expensive process.
Feats of Clay, the group show of ceramic artworks at Gallery Threshold featuring a varied collection of works by 12 artists, acts as a good introduction to ceramic art in India while making a case for it to be taken seriously, on a par with, say, painting or sculpture. The artists on display come from across the country and curator Ela Mukherji—a ceramic artist herself—points out that they reflect, in varying degrees, the differences in traditional techniques of making ceramic wares in different regions. Mukherji says she has also tried to include technically and formalistically varied pieces—there are typical wheel-thrown works (made using the potter’s wheel), sculptured figures, and pit-fired (works baked in a pit dug into the ground) as well as high-fired stoneware (fired in an oven at temperatures of 1,200-1,280 degrees Celsius). The works also vary in the choice of clay, in the use of glazes and colours, and in the artists’ choice of themes.
A sneak peek at some of the works to go on display underscored Mukherji’s emphasis on variety—they span the range from the abstract, to identifiable forms and figures, to variations on downright utilitarian objects, the last being a tea set by Manipuri artist Ashim Pearl, who is now based in Delhi. Despite the leaf-like saucers and the angulated teapot—made from clay mixed with ground stone in a traditional pit fire—it could technically still be used to serve tea. Mukherji points out that the black blotches and streaks on the surface of the tea service have been caused by carbon deposits, the result of using the traditional mix of straw, twigs and sawdust for the fire.
An example of sculptural work are the large human heads by the Kerala-based artist G. Reghu, with what can be described as distinctly African features exaggerated to convey a sense of innocence. The look and feel of the works, clearly derived from folk tradition, is complemented by the plain earthy texture of the non-glazed stoneware used to make them. This harmony of the medium and message, as it were, also comes through in the striking works by the Delhi-based artist Debashish Das—the smooth, shiny texture of the greyish-white surface is embellished by impish nude figurines lending a note of playful drama to the semi-abstract works.
Mukherji’s own works on display—stupa-like red mounds of fired clay crowned by a tuft of blue polyps—derive much of their soothing effect from the primeval appeal of the pure form, and the colour and texture of the humble matka (pot). Alongside is a plain round hoop representing a tree, and perched on it is a golden bird-like form that provides a visual contrast, but fits with the mood of the pieces.
There is also an element of the primeval in Abhay Pandit’s cratered and richly textured discs which could remind you of a planetary surface viewed from afar or the shell of a marine creature. And while the shape and form of Rahul Kumar’s receptacles—they look vaguely like vases or bottles or flasks—definitely veer towards the primitive with a tumid and fleshy feel, their texture is shiny and in one case with a metallic gloss. These and other works then demonstrate amply the versatility of clay—when moulded in concert with water and fire, the only limit to what can be created with it is the artist’s imagination.
Feats of Clay will show at the Gallery Threshold, F 213-A, Lado Sarai, New Delhi, from 18 July to 8 August