Is pottery the new yoga?
There is a romantic vision that pottery as a craft easily lends itself to: a potter sitting at a spinning wheel, fully absorbed. But anyone who has handled clay knows pottery is hard work. More prone to such visions are, likely, the day-jobbers strapped to office chairs all day long.
Yet the pace of modern life makes it all too easy to fall under the “handmade” spell of pottery. India is now waking up to the charms of “studio pottery” as a leisure activity, where pottery is an exercise in aesthetics, not merely a livelihood.
Although the iconic Delhi Blue Pottery was founded as long ago as 1952 by the late artist Gurcharan Singh, the past decade has seen the emergence of pottery studios across cities.
Later this year, in what seems to be a fillip for Indian ceramic art, the first edition of the Indian Ceramics Triennale will showcase work by 45 ceramic artists from India and abroad, at Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra. It will be held from 31 August-18 November.
“It’s physical, it’s meditative, it’s therapeutic,” is how Aparna Choudhrie describes pottery. After 15 years, she left a corporate career to set up The Clay Company in Delhi in 2011. She says she really felt the need to do something different with her time. The studio’s flexible class timings appeal to an office-going crowd. “I wanted to give them an avenue where they can take it up seriously,” she says. Her airy, high-ceilinged studio seems to be at the epicentre of Nehru Place, one of Asia’s largest electronics markets, in Delhi. Yet it remains detached from the surroundings. The hawkers ply their high-tech wares outside, while, inside, unfolds a craft that can be traced to the dawn of human civilization.
“What’s special about pottery is that it isn’t just physical. It absorbs you at many levels,” says Choudhrie. Pottery is now gaining popularity, she says. “Many working people come to realize they need to spend their time differently and it’s amazing to see that.”
For Delhi-based journalist Lasya Nadimpally, who trained at The Clay Company, pottery was restorative. “I joined the course when I was diagnosed with moderate depression and I can tell you, I really looked forward to those two and a half hours,” says Nadimpally. “Pottery calmed me down as it demands so much concentration. If you’re working with clay on the wheel and you lose concentration, your entire piece dies.”
In Bengaluru, Ganesan Manickavasagam, who was in the software industry for more than a decade, also found that many professionals from engineering, finance or IT backgrounds were taking to pottery. It was his daughter who introduced him to the world of clay. And, in 2009, he co-founded one of the first studios in Bengaluru, Clay Station.
Ceramic artist Shilpy Gupta, who teaches at Clay Station, has seen immense growth in the last decade. But the more significant change, she thinks, is in the number of people who now feel confident enough to take it up professionally. “We now have many more avenues to showcase the work in the new potters’ markets in cities like Indore, Nagpur, Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai,” says Gupta. “The art galleries are also becoming gradually more open to ceramics as an art form.”
There is a prevailing sense that Indian studio pottery is turning a page. Dewakar Chandran recalls the deluge of calls he received when he set up the arts school, Life and Art Academy, in Chennai in 2013. “That’s when we realized there were so many people here who wanted to learn pottery but couldn’t find a place,” says Chandran on the phone.
Life and Art became the first school in Chennai to come up with a structured programme for pottery. As in other cities, Chandran has seen “drastic growth”—he claims many even change their careers to pursue pottery.
Anubha Jaswal is one such artist. Her eight-year stint in the communications industry was long enough to put her off “computers, data and numbers”. She quit her job to do pottery full-time. What’s the appeal of clay? “I think it’s to do with a sense of accomplishment that comes when you do something with your hands,” she says.
Pottery is accessible because Indians grow up with “handmade stuff” around them, says Mumbai-based ceramic artist Rekha Goyal. “So there is a sense of familiarity with the craft.”
Goyal, who trained in ceramics at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, has been practising pottery since 1999. She established The Pottery Lab in Bandra in 2012. Her list of students includes professionals who are “fed up of being at their laptops all day”. For them, it’s a very satisfying experience to create something from scratch.
“I’m not saying it’s an easy material to work with,” Goyal says. “But people are becoming more aware of what a beautiful material ceramic is.”
As more Indians get drawn to the craft, some stick around long enough to realize the romantic vision of pottery as a meditative retreat. But it’s a long path, littered with ever-crumbling pots, misshapen vessels, broken plates, waiting on that elusive perfect shape.
“When you’re working on a pottery wheel, you forget what is happening around you,” says Chandran. “That’s how much you get involved,” he says. “I mean, what else do you need?”