In 1979 we helped Ron DuBois document Indian terracotta traditions. A professor of ceramics at Oklahoma State University, Ron was here on a Fulbright and while filming in New Delhi he heard of the monumental clay sculpture of Tamil Nadu. He contacted us. We located a pottery village situated next to an Aiyanar shrine near Chidambaram and made a contract with the potters to build a ten-foot Aiyanar horse. For three weeks Ron traveled daily by bus from Chidambaram through what he called “National Geographic country” to the village of Puthur, where he filmed the entire process of making a monumental clay horse. This was our introduction to the traditional potters of Tamil Nadu.

Deborah Smith and I founded the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry in 1971. And we still make a line of handmade, functional stoneware pottery today. Thirteen years after Ron DuBois, in 1992, our involvement with rural pottery in India broadened. Deborah Thiagarajan of the Madras Craft Foundation invited us to tour potteries of south Tamil Nadu. After 20 years in India we still had scant knowledge of local terracotta traditions for which, nonetheless, we held in high esteem. Deborah recalls that on her first day in Pondicherry in December 1970, walking to the Ashram dining room on an unpaved North Blvd, she stooped to pick up a shard of a broken terracotta water pot, marveling at its perfection.

For one week, with Deborah Thiagarajan and Hans Kaushik, we traveled the districts of Tanjavur, Pudukkottai and Trichy, searching for villages where monumental terracotta sculpture was still being made.

Kelambakkam

That one week trip culminated in a one month workshop that I conducted at Kelambakkam on Deborah Thiagarajan’s rural property 30 kms south of Chennai. Potters came to demonstrate their own skills and methods and to be challenged by new ways of working, especially in kiln design and firing technique.

Seventeen potters from eight towns or villages gathered in a large keet shed set up for the workshop. When I squatted at the traditional village potter’s wheel and threw a pot on the first day of the workshop, I think I broke down any barriers that might have existed about “what does this guy have to teach us?” Certainly, I do not have their skill with clay. But it was clear that I did know what I was doing.

We had a truckload of local Chennai clay and another truckload of Aranthangi clay, which is suitable for large sculpture. Potters began right away with the big pieces, as they take longer to make and dry. Horses, elephants, Bhutas began to fill the large keet shed. Making smaller pieces—gods, goddesses, animals of all kinds, Drishtis, chulas and water pots—occupied the potters during the drying time needed to stiffen the lower section of a large work before adding clay and progressing up the piece.

Three kilns were built: one, the traditional kiln of the Tanjavur-Pudukkottai area (which I call the horse shoe kiln); two, a three-meter-wide, two-meter-high catenary vault and three, a simple unroofed cylinder which upgrades the traditional bonfire method used by potters all over the subcontinent.

Here the intent was to reduce firing loss. I have not been to a village in the South where a potter pre-heats his kiln or bonfire. It is a very simple solution to firing loss. I wanted to see if we could fire successfully in the horse shoe kiln. I thought a six hour pre-heat would probably be sufficient. The potters held off the full stoke for four hours, then, bored, they cranked it up and the fireworks began!

The cylinder or Nepali kiln is a design developed in Nepal by Jim Danisch. Jim worked with GTZ for ten years developing glazed red ware with the traditional potters of Thimi and Bhaktapur. Some of the workshops he inspired still flourish today making glazed earthenware. The Nepali kiln has many advantages. It is essentially a walled bonfire, so setting the kiln is well understood by the potters. Cheap to build, it is a ring of ordinary red brick. It can be permanent or temporary. But most importantly, it can be pre-heated. This kiln was loaded and fired twice at Kelambakkam with water pots, chulas and small sculpture. No breakage at all.

It was an active month. I am not sure how much technology was transferred. Certainly the whole process was well documented. And Deborah and I made potter friends from several of the villages represented. We still visit villages and shrines in the South nearly every year. Our closest association has been with Mr. P. Pazhanichamy in Thuvaradimanai near Pudukkottai. When he returned to his village he immediately built the Nepali kiln. Pazhanichamy was the only potter from the workshop who tried to introduce the Nepali kiln back in his village. That opened up a collaboration that continues today.

Pazhanichamy and the village are featured in Jane Perryman’s Traditional Pottery of India. Jim Danisch has led two tours of American potters who have worked with Pazhanichamy in his village. Well-known ceramists Sandy Brown and Mike Dodd from the UK and Americans Betty Woodman and Susan Peterson, who conducted workshops at GBP, met Pazhanichamy in Thuvaradimanai.

Fired Building

My fired building experiments lasted 13 years, from 1985 to 1998. Briefly, the idea was to stabilize a mud structure by firing it in-situ. That included filling the structure with a raw clay product, and then firing product and structure at the same time. Sell the product to cover the cost of firing and you have a stabilized structure for the cost of the mud building. Waterproof the “kiln” with a cement- or lime-based plaster and move into a house.

In the beginning the product was brick and tile, but as the process developed I added chulas, pipes, toilet pans and a whole range of terracotta products for the home—lamp bases, diyas, candle stands etc. Potters worked on the Visitor’s Center, Satyajit’s House and Martha’s House in Auroville, Minota Aquatec in Tuticorin, the Salem project and Nrityagram near Bangalore, making everything from smokeless chulas to ocarinas.

Traditional Potters at GBP

In 1992, Bob Granner, then a teacher at the Kodaikanal International School, met Subramaniam, a young traditional potter from Genguvarpatti on the plains below Kodai. Bob supported Subramaniam for three years while he trained with Deborah at GBP. Subramaniam returned to Kodaikanal to run the workshop of the Potter’s Shed Trust, a non-profit set up by Bob to serve disadvantaged children. Subramaniam is a remarkable potter who is producing some of the highest quality production stoneware that we have seen from a trainee of GBP.

In 1994, sculptors Wade Saunders from the USA and his French wife Anne Rochette worked with Pazhanichamy for the better part of a year at GBP. Wade was on a Fulbright and Anne taught sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Paris, where she now heads the department. Wade and Anne employed as many as thirty people in our compound including stone sculptors from Mahabalipuram and carpenters and tinkers from Pondicherry.

In 2005 Pazhanichamy worked at GBP with Lisa Hernandez from Canada. He taught her how to make thrown and beaten jars.

In December of 2006 we arranged a demonstration workshop for a group of potter/sculptors from the USA. The INDEBO group was to be with us for half-a-day and they wanted to see the Tamil method of building a clay horse. Pazhanichamy came ten days early to make a set of four legs, four legs on a body and four legs with a body and head to decorate. Pazhanichamy came down with Chikengunya two days into the process. We sent him home to the village and he sent two relations back to finish the preparations. Finally the participants had a chance to see how a horse is made, and to work hands-on at each stage of the process.

Hanif Galwani, a potter from Dharavi in Mumbai did the seven-month course at GBP in 2007. He surprised his family when he sold Rs. 50,000 of his glazed stoneware at the Kala Ghoda street fair in 2008. Hanif’s brother will be with us next year from June through September. Hanif has been working with Sandeep Manchekar, who conducted a workshop with traditional potters on glazed terracotta at MCF in 2007.

And last year Pazhanichamy spent one month working for me making large funerary urns for my 2008 show at Nature Morte, New Delhi.

Opportunities Abroad

When we arrived at Thuvaradimanai with Betty Woodman in 2002, I asked Pazhanichamy if he thought he could accept an invitation to Greece to demonstrate his technique for making large storage jars. “Sure,” he said, “I have just returned from the Biennale in Korea.” In fact Betty had participated in the same event. We helped Pazhanichamy get off to Greece for a week in 2004, and in August of this year, he returned from a month in Sweden, where he demonstrated for a group of highly regarded Swedish sculptors at Lokatta Keramik in Visby on Gotland Island. Deborah was a major force in making this happen. Getting permissions to send 650 kgs of rice husk to Sweden—an important component of Pazhanichamy’s clay—was daunting to say the least.

Full Circle

At the start, Deborah and I did most of the production at GBP ourselves. We were assisted by one or two apprentices who were always keen to move on and start their own workshops. In the early eighties we began training young men from the adjacent village of Nellithope. We did not hire traditional potters. We work very differently. Clays are different. We glaze. We throw the finished piece; we do not throw and paddle. We thought it might be more difficult to change the ways of a master craftsman than to train a young man from scratch, and we did not want to “mess with” an already good thing. In retrospect, perhaps that was not a bad idea, though for very different reasons. In 1980 we certainly had no idea that now the community of “Pondicherry potters” would number in the hundreds, employed in more than 25 workshops in the Pondicherry/Auroville area. Pondicherry Pottery, called “ceramic pottery,” is a new tradition here.

But when GBP lost three of four throwers within six months in 1994 we hired traditional potters for the first time. We just could not face the total retraining of three throwers when we now had a fully developed product line. And I had been working with several young potters from the surrounding villages on my fired building projects. Our earlier fears were misplaced. These young potters were keen to get involved in a challenging new approach.
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On a recent trip south we arrived in Thuvaradimanai on a newly tarred road. The new road into the village leads out as well. The next generation of traditional potters is virtually non-existent. Demand for clay pottery is waning. Cattle troughs are now made in cement, by the traditional potter. Perhaps ironically, one of the traditional potters that we hired in 1994 and trained for fourteen years, has gone back to his village to take advantage of the growing market in terracotta trinkets for the middle class. While I commend his enterprise and am genuinely happy that he can make a living from his craft, I am forced to look again at traditional craft and am again reminded of English art critic Herbert Read’s “pottery is at once the simplest and the most difficult of all arts. It is the simplest because it is the most elemental; it is the most difficult because it is the most abstract.” The utter beauty of those functional objects, wedded to life on the most essential level, is undeniable. As perfect in form and function as anything you are likely to find.

The old art/craft debate turned on its head. What once was art, becoming craft.