Conversations around the Clay Oven
by Georgina Maddox
Journeys of Clay and Fire is a bold exhibition that takes the visitor through time and space encompassing age-old traditional pottery and contemporary expression
It is most refreshing when one walks into a ceramic exhibition and does not see anything that is conventional or directly pot-shaped in nature. Instead, what one comes in contact with are invigorating new ways of looking at ceramic art. Whether it is the slab, spherical or amphora, the shape and form of ceramic art one sees in the show, Journeys of Clay and Fire, has been re-contextualized with a new narrative attributed to them.
“Challenges to old ways of thinking can bring about a thirst for developing original aesthetic concepts, palettes and trajectories,” says Kristine Michael, the curator of the exhibition of and about ceramics presented by Charles Wallace India Trust in collaboration with the British Council.
The show features seven well-known names in contemporary ceramics: Abhay B. Pandit, Mumbai; Ela Mukherjee, Delhi; K. Gukan Raj, Chennai; Neha Kudchadkar, Mumbai; Shirley Bhatnagar, Dehradun; Shitanshu G. Maurya, Kolkata and Shruti Bansal, Delhi.
“These interactions have enabled them to develop a new artistic language based on a multi-disciplinary approach focused on process, research, exploration, materiality, and critical thinking. Over the decades, this flow of ideas has led to a deeper understanding of India within the UK,” says Michael.
Meanderings by Ela Mukherjee
One cannot help but take in the larger-than-life wall installation Meanderings' (2021-22) by Ela Mukherjee. The egg-like shaped spheres are rendered in terracotta and covered with intricate lines and patterns that are breath-taking and engaging in their enormity. Adjacent to this is the Tribute to a Shared Past Series, a series of sculptural works rendered in glazed and fired ceramic. Doors, windows and stairways lead us through an abstraction of the past, where architecture is the leitmotif.
“I enjoy the visual and tactile quality of clay as medium of expression. At times I juxtapose other materials like metal, textile, and glass along with clay. My work is about repetitive sequencing with separate elements to form a cohesive sculptural group,” says Mukherjee. This is but a fraction of her large body of work, but we are happy to see it in public view.
Ceramic works by Abhay Pandit
The young artist Abhay Pandit belongs to a family of studio potters where his father is the award-winning Padma Shri recipient B.R. Pandit. Importantly, the son is has his own approach to the medium that varies vastly from his father, where he brings his own contemporary interpretation to clay and ceramic work. “I have grown up around the coastline of Mumbai and my home is just few kilometres away from the sea. I have dreamt since childhood about exploring the ocean floor and its unfathomable treasures. In my work, I try to recreate the abstract textures of the ocean floor,” says Abhay Pandit, whose stoneware clay with copper artworks in shades of blue are indeed a striking exploration of the amorphous forms below the sea.
Thaw by K Gukan Raj
K Gukan Raj is a Chennai-based artist who says that he ‘travels’ with clay following its ‘rhythm’. “The path I follow is like a never-ending pursuit of the balance between form and flow. Nature always carves the earth, and that reflects in my work,” says Raj. His glazed stoneware works on display – long-columnar forms titled ‘Thaw’ – capture that sentiment of carving the earth.
Exhibition display of Video art and Photographs by Neha Kudchadkar
Neha Kudchadkar is an artist who began her journey in mural-making at the MSU Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, though now she works with ceramics and combines it with performance and digital art. Her work is quite a unique combination of the two. She recalls that the exercise was to live in Kudchade, her ancestral hometown. “It is the town I derive the second half of my name from. To collect stories, places, meaning. As the Zuari flows through her hands, with it flow her family and place histories. This video is part of a recurring project – Auto Ethnography Through Objects – which marks my body in the socio-political space it occupies through objects, at different points of my life.” The other work titled 'Weight Lifter’ features the artist with heavy objects placed on her recumbent form. It documents a difficult, precarious, uncomfortable moment in time, made heavy by grief, breakdowns, depression and helplessness during the Lockdown and the Pandemic.
Weight Lifter by Neha Kudchadkar
Fossil series by Shitanshu G Maurya
Shitanshu G Maurya is an artist based out of Lucknow and his ceramic and mixed-media sculptures posit the metaphor of urban life through the lens of a historical perspective. His Fossil series has a very strong reference to the past while other works a more playful and contemporary metaphor.
“This series of works came in a succession from the earlier Scabrous Allure series, where I was playing with the interrelations of negative and positives. These are metaphors for the preserved remains of emotions and related observations in one's life,” says Maurya adding, “These imaginary forms of non-visual things are visual evidence of pre-existing thoughts which never got expressed previously in any form.”
Shruti Bansal, has created an experience that looks at the inevitability of life, and death within life. The thin slab-like works appear like rolled parchment and aged pages from an almanac with text written on their surface. Bansal employs Porcelain clay with slip-casting and printing to get the desired effect.
“Life and death are a vicious circle that no one can escape, leaving behind a vacuum after we lose people close to us. Having experienced it personally, it inspired me to start exploring the metaphorical nature of containment and transformation,” says Shruti. Even though her premise is dark her works have a light and ephemeral feel to them.
Exhibition display of works by Shruti Bansal
In contrast Shirley Bhatnagar’s works use humour to comment on socio-political issues. The human busts and head-like forms are caricatures of the social animal that is humankind. Bhatnagar brings to these anthropomorphic forms an infusion of ancient pottery forms and fantastical objects. “I use narrative infused with humour to comment on social and political issues built upon historical study and research,” says Bhatnagar.
Ceramic works by Shirley Bhatnagar
The exhibition also tells us through photographs and an innovative short film of the Gundiyali Project that documents working with the craft persons from Gundiyali, a village near Mandvi of Kutch district of Gujarat, and the Design Innovation and Craft Resource Centre (DICRC), CRDF, CEPT University in Ahmedabad. Similarly, it speaks of the work done in Baswa, in Dausa district, Rajasthan, with the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design (IICD) and the West Dean Collage of Arts and Conservation. The collaboration of all these institutes has helped to keep alive the traditional methods of craft with contemporary design and ‘sustainable technology’.
The exhibition brings to our notice the eternal journey of reinvention, rediscovery and re-contextualization that is so much part of the arts, with a medium like clay that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilization.
Catch the show on view till 29 November 2022, at the British Council, New Delhi.
Georgina Maddox is an independent critic-curator with almost two decades of experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She was assistant editor at India Today’s Mail Today and senior arts writer for the Indian Express and the Times of India. She is currently working in the media as an independent critic for various publications and has published articles in Open Magazine, India Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and also in Elle Magazine, The Hindu and Business Line, Sunday Magazine BLINK, TAKE on Art, Time Out, and online with US based E-magazine, Studio International, STIR world and MASH Mag.