Craft du jour

Handmade ceramics are white hot serving as both art and functional home items, says Runa Ashish

With the onset of summers, one gets to see roadsides filled with makeshift stalls selling matkas and surahis. Once the season’s over, the little stalls are also gone only to resurface around the same time next year. Not just the poor, you can see people alighting from cars to pick up their favourite pieces indicating that technological advancements may have dented the earthen pottery business, but this traditional art continues to occupy a special place in our hearts. That’s what I call the beauty of ceramics. Maybe all of us don’t look forward to owning ceramic pieces like other artworks, but handcrafted ceramics have risen into resurgence. You see them in trendsetting boutiques, artfully arranged in window displays and on shelves like totems of good taste. They can be spotted in the stylized pages of cult magazines, often paired with organically shaped cutting boards and sun-dappled potted succulents. And among certain creative-minded millennials, ceramics have replaced jewellery and furniture made from salvaged lumber as the craft du jour, with access to choice kilns as a status symbol to be flaunted on Pinterest and Instagram. Beautiful and imperfect, smaller pottery serves as both art and functional home item. Artistic, accessible and affordable, small-scale handcrafted ceramics can appeal to young singles decorating first apartments, or to older folks and families looking for a more personalized look than mass-produced items provide. Few markets have grown at such speed as ceramics, which has seen a total overhaul, thanks to the contemporary artists who are dusting down the delicate mediums. Collectors too are apparently now more receptive to this long-forgotten discipline. Ceramic is not only more accessible, it is also an investment. No wonder ceramic studios are mushrooming all over the country continuing the development. Says Pratibha Agarwal, Promoter, Art Life Gallery, Noida: “In the past five years, ceramics have grown so much in popularity. They’re functional, but they’re also pieces of art. People are tapping into the notion of owning something beautiful and imperfect, but that you can use in your everyday life. You can tell there’s a hand that made it. It feels very soulful, authentic.”

Even Kala Ghoda Festival this year created a special space for ceramics. There was a workshop organized at Jehangir Art Gallery, too, named as Clay and Conversation. There was a display area where almost 35-40 artists showcased their talents. Well-known names like Anjali Aney, Shayonti Salvi and Tejasvi Chaphekar shared their experiences with art lovers at the workshop. Neha Kuchadkar, a ceramic artist and guest speaker for the workshop, says, “This is a platform where artists come together and share their knowledge and thoughts. It’s good to be here as we rarely come together under one umbrella. We stay at different parts of country.” One of the organizers, Anjali Khanna, who is a pottery artist herself, says, “We do not want to limit the artists to just sharing their experiences… we also want them to have a place to showcase their works on a bigger platform.” Khanna says artists need supportive and interesting locations to exhibit and develop a critical dialogue around their works. “I come across a lot of people who have brilliant ideas but they are unaware about work that has already been accomplished in the ceramic world. They need to know if some artist is already working on the same lines. Such workshops make new artists aware of their contemporaries and their works,” she adds. Kshitija Mitter from Pune, for instance, is once such artist who is a hobby potter. An engineer and a mother of a five-year-old, she pursues her hobby after working hours which could be at night or on weekends. She says, “I make decorative items from ceramic. I found come serious buyers here. Some of them asked me various tricks of the art like how do I make tiny holes in an agarbatti stand.” We also spoke to Shayonti Salvi, a conceptual artist from Mumbai. She used to be an interior designer, but later on her love for ceramics made her study the art form as a curriculum. She says, “There is a misconception in the market that there are no contemporary or good sculptors in Mumbai. People think all good artists are either based in Delhi or in Kolkata. Maybe it’s because although there are several ceramic communities in the country, like in Baroda, Shanti Niketan and Puduchhery, there wasn’t a single, well-known potters’ community in Mumbai. So we wanted to change this perception. We are certainly not from any gharanas, but we all love ceramics.” Salvi says they are also trying to tell the people that ceramic sculptors are no less than other sculptors who work with stones or metal. In fact, the paradox common to potters and ceramic artists today begins during their formal training. In colleges and universities, students often have a difficult time choosing to make functional pottery within the stubborn structure of art school. Critical discussions of a student’s pottery often ask: “Why pottery?” rather than the more difficult and interesting questions of: “What is this pottery about, where does it go? How do we as individuals or as a culture respond to this? Where do we experience this work in our bodies? What are the roots of this work?” When students leave school, they are burdened with defending the very nature of the work itself, rather than participating in dialogue about and around the work. Agarwal, however, says: “We hold ceramic artists in high esteem because unlike others, they are by nature entrepreneurs. They tend to personally develop every step of their process: mixing materials; making, researching and developing creative processes; firing work; formulating glazes; applying surface decoration; building kilns that suit and sup-port their ideas.” Agarwal says they also document and send their work out into the field. “They cultivate their audience and work to establish a supportive community for their livelihood. They must wear many hats. We need to fill gaps in the field that the intellectuals of the art establishment have ignored,” she adds. The community of people working with clay is rapidly expanding and splintering into groups based on technique, ideology, monetary value and location, to name a few. “I encourage established ceramic artists/crafts-people to extend a hand to emerging artisans, take them as assistants, recommend them for exhibitions,” says Agarwal. “I also call on established galleries to consider exhibiting outside of the lucrative domain of cosmopolitan cities; an expansion of exhibition spaces will further educate the public and support the broad range of work and prices that comprise the field.”

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