The potter, in ancient Indian usage, is ‘Prajapati’, meaning ‘the Creator’. Why was this necessary but humble artisan given such grand cultural status? Clearly because he made ghatas or kumbhas, clay pots that symbolised fertility and abundance to us, a symbol of Ma Durga herself, formed of earth, water, fire and air and holding space (the ether) inside itself: the five elements that make our world. Don’t you think, though, that these perceptions were a gift of ancient firelight, which threw bewitching, mysterious shadows and created mind-pictures of cosmic connections through its particular ‘taaseer’ or quality? In our present lives, white light flattens colours and surfaces and robs us of the romance of shadows as the price of ‘clarity’. So while we can read, cook, sew, clean or assemble things, we are perhaps robbed of ‘seeing’ like our ancients ‘saw’ in the very different light of fire.
That at any rate is what I felt, looking at photo editor Bandeep Singh’s images of the kumbha with the feminine body, from his soon-to-happen exhibition: was this thought the gift of the enhanced Devi-consciousness in the air?
Close on this came another association: of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Edward Fitzgerald’s long-ago translation (1859) of a 100 verses by the Sufi ‘Tentmaker of Nishapur’ is pooh-poohed by some today, but there is a grandeur and sincerity to it that still works for me. Of special interest are the verses at the end: the Kuza Nama or Book of Pots (and the ‘Tamil’ word for jug, taken from the Persian, is ‘kooja’!). As many know well, the Kuza Nama begins at Verse 59 in Fitzgerald’s translation:
n Listen again, one evening at the close/Of Ramazan ere the better moon arose/In that old Potter’s shop I stood alone/With the clay Population round in rows.
n And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot/Some could articulate, while others not/And suddenly one more impatient cried/ “Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
n Then said another, “Surely not in vain/My Substance from the common Earth was ta’en/That He who subtly wrought me into Shape/ Should stamp me back to common Earth again?”
The verse that made a cliché of the Rubaiyat in the western world was “A book of verses underneath the bough, a loaf of bread, a jug of wine...and thou beside me singing in the wilderness...”.
As for us, I dare not speculate on how many ‘painting classes’ that young Indian ladies went to, set up ‘Omar Khayyam’ as a theme, the results of which were proudly hung on a million walls (it’s a rite of passage I seem to have missed).
Given the rough times we are going through on so many fronts, I thought these verses were particularly consoling. At least they made sense to my grim little Indian heart that expects neither salvation nor deliverance but stoically sets its shoulder to the wheel, pausing only to smell a rose or eat a piece of chocolate: determined to show up for its life despite everything. The worldview reflected in these verses seems to tell it like it is:
n 'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days/Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays/
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays/And one by one back in the Closet lays.
n The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes/But Right or Left, as strikes the Player goes/And He that toss’d Thee down into the Field/ ‘He’ knows about it all - He knows - He knows!
n The Moving Finger writes; and,
having writ/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half
a Line/Nor all thy Tears wash out a
Word of it.
Makes sense in our times, doesn’t it? However, the most inspiring verse, even if a bit bumpy, seems this one, which faces up to the Mystery with dignity and courage despite our terrible fragility:
n Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make/And who with Eden didst devise the Snake/For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man/Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give and take.