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Rahul Kumar with his miniature pottery. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Rahul Kumar with his miniature pottery. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Pottery | Everyday art

Sculptural, artistic or utilitarianstudio pottery is fast becoming an aspirational art form

A vase made of porcelain, classical in form but with popular cultural imagery—quirky motifs of consumerism, the radio, television and toys of the 1980s: It is done in trademark Thukral and Tagra (T&T) style.

The most recent collection of the artist and designer duo, known for their graphics, videos, art and sculptures, is in clay—a set of 50 sculptures, the outcome of a collaboration between T&T and the German luxury brand Meissen.

Called Longing for Tomorrow, this collection is an unusual rendering of a material which is otherwise used for more conservative designs like figurines and dinner ware. “These piece are not for sale, only to be shown in galleries and museums," says Sumir Tagra, “since some things can’t have a price tag."

While this is a one-off work in porcelain, the community of potters and ceramic artists is growing in India. Alka Pandey, curator at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Delhi, says: “Ceramics is slowly inching its way into a fine art practice. It is the urban, younger executive who is well-travelled, has seen the pottery traditions of Japan, Korea and Europe, who is investing in ceramic art. The potters’ community itself is getting better organized and marketed."

Thukral and Tagra’s porcelain vase
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Thukral and Tagra’s porcelain vase

Anuradha Ravindranath and Ravi Batra, trustees at the Capital’s Delhi Blue Pottery Trust—an institute that has been responsible for teaching an entire generation—also see this as an exciting time for studio pottery in India. “Ten years ago it was not a viable thing to be a studio potter. But now a lot of young people are coming into pottery and finding a way to sell their work. Recently, there have been works, single pieces that have sold for as high as 70,000," says Ravindranath.

For many senior artists that’s only a starting price point. Commissioned works, depending on the scale of the sculptures, can easily go above 1 lakh. Auroville-based ceramicist Adil Writer worked as an architect in Mumbai for 15 years before moving to study clay work at south India’s ceramic hub, the Golden Bridge Pottery, in Puducherry. He has been with Mandala Pottery in Auroville for 12 years and is a regular on the exhibition circuit.

“Let me tell you, nowhere does clay work sell as well as it does currently in India. Last year, I was a part of three international ceramic museum events in Japan, including one at the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art in Mino, Gifu. The works on show were fabulous, but almost nothing sold. I confided with my co-exhibitors that if this show were to be held in India, all this would be sold out on opening night. There is a show being organized by the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust in 2014, and I am certain that even at international ceramic prices the works will fly off the shelves!" says Writer.

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Jars inspired by sea life, made by Bhagyashree Patwardhan and Thomas Louis

The art or craft debate

Writer reasons that there has been an unnecessary, inherent division between art and craft, a mindset of “this is made of mitti or clay" that may have caused a sidelining of ceramics in the first place. His works in the group show, Transformation, which moved from Delhi to Auroville in early February, seamlessly combines canvas paintings with ceramic panels. The placard next to one of the series, called The Crusade, reads, “Please Touch". Writer’s point: “What is art, what is craft, is there a difference? Unless you touch my installations, you cannot tell what medium is on show."

Kumar concurs. “While craft is more a skill-based community activity, art is more individual, and the minute you have an expression, I think it becomes art. Yes, it doesn’t matter what your medium is," he says. “In Japan, traditionally pottery has been their national treasure. That is gradually happening here as well. My work sells. A lot of senior artists’ work sells. And it sells very expensive," he asserts.

Tabletop perspective

While the more sculptural studio pottery or ceramic art is going glam, handmade utilitarian tableware is not far behind either. In its own category and right, handmade cups, saucers and vases have more aspirational value in urban lifestyles than ever before. Almost 80% of the ceramic work coming out of Mandala Pottery, where Writer is a partner, is functional ceramic tableware, mostly thrown on the wheel, or slip-cast.

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A mug by ceramicist Niharika Hukku

Another duo elevating functional tableware from a primarily skill-based profession to a more design-led one is Goa-based ceramicists Bhagyashree Patwardhan and Thomas Louis. Graduates of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Patwardhan and Louis run a company called Monkey Business, set up in 2011. Their latest product line—coral-like pieces, jellyfish jars, the Balancing Act vase that looks like a stack of pebbles about to crumble, all have an inherent playfulness.

Patwardhan says this form of ceramics may be nascent in the country, but it’s being appreciated. “We do limited editions and for a certain audience that admires it, understands the values and the higher pricing," says Patwardhan. Her platters, bowls and vases cost 1,100-7,000.

A possible reason for the endurance of pottery over time—it is as old as human settlement—lies in its utility. For instance, Sydney-based ceramicist Niharika Hukku—originally an illustrator—created a set of mugs, plates and bowls in her preferred medium of porcelain paper clay called the Sketch Book series. Her version of pottery is global, modern and usable. Her sleek and lightweight pieces fit seamlessly into an urban lifestyle. There is a remarkable standard and quality, yet they are handmade and retain the mark of the maker. It is this balance that is most desirable about them.

“The ‘Sketch Book’ series is art that’s affordable and functional, a combination of my love of illustration and ceramics," says Hukku.

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