Breaking the mould - Hindustan Times
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Breaking the mould

ByShireen Quadri
Apr 19, 2024 09:36 PM IST

Two recent shows brought out how a new breed of ceramic artists is infusing the medium with playfulness, social commentary, and political subtext

A bird with the face of a girl wears a crown; quirky sketches and portraits adorn mugs, goblets, and human and animal figurines. These porcelain and clay sculptures are part of ceramic artist Shirley Bhatnagar’s Not Exactly Human, which was on display at the Immersive Infinities show organised by Sunaina Anand’s Art Alive Gallery in New Delhi, earlier this year. Bhatnagar gives anthropomorphism and zoomorphism a contemporary twist in her fantastical handcrafted works that combine whimsy with social commentary. She also etches pithy, tongue-in-cheek texts on porcelain, stoneware and various types of terracotta. While some are self-deprecating, others critique the way we engage with each other in the digital world. “Some people they always see, they never mind their own business,” reads one. “Just because I replied to your email doesn’t mean I read it” states another. There are other quotable quotes that make you chuckle: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” or “I may not have gone where I intended to go but I think I have ended up where I needed to be”. Some messages have political overtones like Awaaz Do Hum Ek Hein (Raise Your Voice, We Stand United), which resonates with our times. An alumnus of the National Institute of Design (NID), Bhatnagar belongs to a new breed of Indian ceramic artists, who are inventing a new vocabulary. Her art, which employs animation, drawings, text, and photography, takes on “the role of personifying objects and creating companionship”.

All that glitters: Vinod Daroz’s work. (Immersive Infitities)
All that glitters: Vinod Daroz’s work. (Immersive Infitities)

 “My work also appears simple and childlike, which can be dismissed for being too cute. However, the simplicity of the ideas are a distillation of a complex web of thoughts,” says Shirley Bhatnagar. (Courtesy Immersive Infinities)
 “My work also appears simple and childlike, which can be dismissed for being too cute. However, the simplicity of the ideas are a distillation of a complex web of thoughts,” says Shirley Bhatnagar. (Courtesy Immersive Infinities)

“My work references ancient pottery traditions, in which everyday clay objects are lent human and animal details to infuse them with life and meaning. For this show, I have examined ubiquitous objects, layering them with colour, form, and expression. Besides, the incorporation of photography and text lends a voice to these works. I also combine the playfulness of my work with hidden meanings and messages that have political subtext, and mirror the dichotomy and irony of our lives,” she says. The challenge is always to add an extra dimension to the narrative. “I create my own spaces for the objects, using brightly painted wood. My work also appears simple and childlike, which can be dismissed as being too cute. However, the simplicity of the ideas are a distillation of a complex web of thoughts,” she adds.

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Drawing inspiration from nature: Rakhee Kane’s work (Courtesy Immersive Infinities)
Drawing inspiration from nature: Rakhee Kane’s work (Courtesy Immersive Infinities)

Another work that stood out at the show was Rakhee Kane’s installation of four beautiful totem like ceramic pillars. The surface had shades and textures with huge seed pods hanging from the top. Kane, who draws motifs from nature, explained that the four pillars constitute a fundamental principle in Hinduism and denote the four ultimate objectives of human life: dharma (upholding righteousness and moral values), artha (attaining prosperity and economic wealth), kama (experiencing pleasure and love), and moksha (achieving liberation from the ceaseless cycles of birth and death).

“My artistic focus revolves around developing new forms that mirror my quest for perfection. These forms strive to convey the emotions evoked when observing everyday objects in rural India. Whether it’s a commemorative stone under a village tree or the wooden pillars of a central Indian shrine, my work draws inspiration from these experiences. Trained initially as a painter, I aim to create expansive canvases in my ceramics, providing a platform for free expression,” she says. 

Curated by Kristine Michael, Immersive Infinities, a group exhibition, showcased some exceptional pieces. “The work that’s part of this exhibition spans a range of themes, from architecture to social justice, the body, the domestic, the political and the organic, in order to reclaim the centrality of ceramics as a medium in the world of art,” says Michael, a ceramic artist and arts educator herself.

Talking about clay as a medium, artist Vinod Daroz, who lives and works in Baroda, asserts that while it gives him freedom, it is also challenging. There are several constraints but clay allows him to express whatever he wants with such ease that he even sketches in clay. At Immersive Infinities, he had a few installations of gold bars, floral bowls and egg forms. Each gold bar had a valuable quote — about a life lesson or experience — etched on it. The floral bowl represents Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, abundance, fertility and purity.  The egg form is a continuation from his previous series signifying masculine and feminine energies. 

Delhi-based clay artist Shweta Mansingka works mostly with burnished/unglazed clays and experiments with different techniques for her concept-based artworks. Her installations about the universe and the Divine are soaked in spirituality. One of her works featured several locks and keys, aesthetically designed and mounted. Others included a circle with many centres and no circumference and black mystic installations.

Shweta Mansingka’s installations are about the divine. (Courtesy Immersive Infinities)
Shweta Mansingka’s installations are about the divine. (Courtesy Immersive Infinities)

“My art is in reverence to that divine energy which is all-pervading and perpetual. It speaks of the divinity seated deep within each one of us, the non-dual consciousness that is all-encompassing. It is a tribute to the Advaita philosophy in our scriptures, which attributes to each atom the potential and completeness of infinite creation. My processes involve many levels of meticulous refining and purifying of the clay at each stage, removing all that is coarse to bring out the subtle inherent beauty that lies latent within it,” she says.  

Kolkata-based painter-sculptor Partha Dasgupta’s works, which were also part of the show, were executed even as he was making a clay idol of Durga for the puja in Kolkata. No wonder there were marks of hay and straw on the pieces; he would touch the pieces with a bunch of straw which tied the armature of the Durga idol.  “To work on this new series, I looked back on my earlier practices for a clue. There, I found a couple of sketches I did at Kushinagar, where Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana (nirvana after death) took place. The stupa was built with red bricks/burnt clay, which seems like a kind of rebirth of clay. From this clue, I started my journey. Moreover, for the last few years, I have been experimenting with natural slips and clay collected from Santiniketan, which, after firing over or under, gives fascinating hues and forms. It is like a resurgence of the material,” Dasgupta says.  

Fresh Off The Wheel, curated by Georgina Maddox and Khanjan Dalal, also presented thought provoking work. One of its participating artists, Abhay Pandit recreated the abstract textures of the ocean floor. “I have grown up around the coastline of Mumbai; my home is just a few kilometres away from the sea. Since childhood, I have dreamt about exploring the ocean floor and its unfathomable treasures. The ceramic surface is perfect to depict my visualisation of the earth’s atmosphere with a bird’s eye view from space. I have frozen those blue, white and grey skies and the atmospheric gases with textured clay and engobes (finely ground clays coloured with pigments and/or oxides) in an abstract language using my clay material,” says Abhay.

Artist Raji Devta is also fascinated by the oceans. The former product designer infuses her creations with the natural essence of the sea. “As a ceramist, I am fascinated by the interplay of design, craft and art. My work delves into exploring functionality in combination with this many-faced material: clay. Capturing the essence of it all in my language is what drives me,” she says. Through the use of techniques like wheel-throwing, hand-building, slip-casting and the different types of firings, Devta seeks to translate earthly inspirations into clay and explore the impact that design holds.

Mumbai-based Devyani Smith, who arrived at the medium after she took some lessons in wheel-thrown pottery, likes her work to evoke ease and fluidity in form and use. “Every piece is whole in itself, and is simultaneously part of a cluster merging into a ‘whole’. I have used my ever-favourite slip and sgraffito — different slips add more flavour and reduce monotony — in Sapor (a collection of studio pottery) for a communal, intimate or a solitary experience,” she says.

All of which shows that Indian ceramics has now arrived at a point where it effortlessly takes on the big themes of life and existence even as it seduces us with its fluid forms.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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