What’s happening with one of the oldest human inventions in the Indian art world.

By Ornella D’Souza

It is bizarre how a Google search on clay art coughs up multiple articles written recently with the same headline: ‘[Insert Terra-cotta / Ceramics / Porcelain / Studio Pottery] is Having a Moment’. Such articles claim that clay art is experiencing a sudden boom and has broken the age-old colonial mould of being a craft form, practised by generations of kumhars (a community associated with pottery) and limited to wheel throwing and modelling, producing bulbous water pots, dainty tea crockery, festive idols of gods Ganesha and Durga for immersion and other traditional objects.

Asish Chowdhury’s ‘The Wall’ is made from clay samples collected from various sites of protest
Abir Patwardhan working on ‘Molten Slumber’ which captures the interplay between material and form

Indeed, it seems everyone—from techies fed up with screen time to Hollywood celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Seth Rogen—have turned into hobby potters, enrolled for studio pottery courses as they find the craft therapeutic. Ceramics have trickled into fashion with the likes of the 2020 Paco Rabanne Square Porcelain Bag and the 2023 exclusive drop of Adidas & Meissen ZX8000 sneakers with porcelain overlay. Contemporary artists like Dhruvi Acharya, Parag Tandel, Tallur L. N., Benitha Perciyal, Chetnaa, Thukral & Tagra and others have incorporated ceramics into their practice for a while now, having learnt on their own and found platforms at important art events (e.g. India Art Fair) and artist residencies. Auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s and MutualArt have progressed beyond their usual vintage and antiquity clay categories, especially with instances of record sales like the one with ceramic plates, bowls, pitchers and vases that Pablo Picasso made around the 1950s. The pool of ceramic and pottery collectors is growing, apart from prominent names such as the husband-wife duo of dermatologists Drs. Asha and Raj Kubba; Anuradha Ravindranath, Trustee at Delhi Blue Pottery; and art historian Pheroza Godrej.

While functional, decorative and religious objects— made on the potter’s wheel or sculpted by hand, then fired and glazed in kilns—still exist, much of the conventional craft has transcended to contemporary art. This section of artworks is mostly non-functional, thrives on inventions and innovations and is sculpted using digital fabrication technologies such as AI-driven 3-D printing, sculpting apps and photogrammetry. At times, the earthy medium becomes a mixed-media hybrid work when combined with anything from sonic waves, VR (virtual reality) to crochet and, as with established contemporary art practices, is themed to broach sociopolitical issues.


Set in stone

Kavita Pandya Ganguly working on ‘Navadhanya’ which explores the dichotomies present between raw and fired forms of the clay

A case in point is the recently concluded second edition of the Indian Ceramics Triennale (ICT), organised by Contemporary Clay Foundation. The first edition of ICT, held at Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra in 2018, was called ‘Breaking Ground’ to break preconceived notions, showcase clay-based work that was edgy, experiential and performative. The 2024 edition (concluded on 31st March)—delayed by three years because of the Covid pandemic—at Delhi’s newly opened art destination Arthshila, was called ‘Common Ground’ and reintegrated some of the ideas from the first edition. While both editions were ‘open call’ models, the Jaipur venue is an established government-run tourist hub “while at Arthshila, the audience has been more focused and interested. Each visitor has made a special effort to get here and many attended the triennale through word of mouth—they had heard good things about it and wanted to experience it,” the ICT team told ON Stage.

The works on display reflected the sheer variety of ideas, scope and evolution of clay-based practices and its forms, not limited to the realm of ceramics, despite the name of the event. Asish Chowdhury infused soil from protest sites like the 2020-21 Indian farmers’ protests into the bricks that formed ‘The Wall’, an installation that signifies power versus people and privilege versus basic rights. A 16th-generation potter from Alwar in Rajasthan, Om Prakash Galav, who holds the record for creating the smallest earthen pot, gave a gist of his practice through ‘Shuniya’. US-based Kushala Vohra, in her work ‘By Heart’, infused Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘Where the mind is without fear’ onto a heap of ceramic footprints to reflect the anxiety one feels stepping out from protected safe spaces into the world and adulthood. In ‘The Space In Between’, Kate Roberts made gates from nylon fishing cords with clay patterns, symbolic of othering and temporality, and dismantled them to reuse and recycle at upcoming shows. Netherlands-based duo Iris De Kievith and Fiona De Bell through ‘Smogware: Delhi’ created tableware fired with glaze mixed with the capital’s notorious smog and did a cheeky thing by even serving food in these at the opening. Artist Andrew Burton and Lilian Nabulime from Uganda with ‘Revisioning Bithooras’ recreated the makeshift structure built to safekeep cow dung patties, an intriguing architectural feature that brings the rural to Delhi’s cityscape.

“Each project speaks of our current concerns, interests and directions. Some works use a very simple quality of clay to talk of larger human truths while others use the material to investigate pressing sociopolitical issues. Some use the material to bring attention to eco-environmental issues, others use the material poetically to reference the immaterial,” said the ICT team.


Pioneering efforts

Deepak Kumar working on ‘Warning Line’ which explores how human progress has collapsed vital ecosystems and resulted in the extinction of numerous species

Hard on the heels of ICT 2024, came an important clay-based group exhibition in the capital titled Shape Shifting (30th March to 18th May) at Art Heritage Gallery, a space that has pioneered shows in clay-based traditions for over 40 years at a time when the material and its practitioners were mostly overlooked by white-cube galleries. Before this show, the gallery had held another group show titled The Firing Line (25th November 2023 to 14th January 2024) featuring works by Aarti Vir, Devesh Upadhyay and Ray Meeker, among others. Art Heritage was started in 1977 and as recorded in the book Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art, it showed K. G. Subramanyan’s terracotta works in 1978, Nirmala Patwardhan’s ceramics in 1979, and so on. Owner Tariq Allana has maintained the tradition. “From the time my grandparents started the gallery, one of the oldest in Delhi, they have always looked at ceramics as an art form, for its long lineage in the far east. We, as a commercial art gallery, do not make distinctions of craft and caste in a way that is exclusionary. We are agnostic about the medium, just concerned with the art. We try to do one ceramics show every year. Besides, clay-based works are typically priced lower than most mediums and we also offer payment on installations, so there’s high affordability. There’s a whole legion of dedicated clientele who continually procure clay artworks from us,” says Allana.

Incidentally, both Art Heritage shows mentioned above were curated by ceramicist, curator and author Kristine Michael. She was instrumental in curating the unique exhibition ‘Multiple Realities’ (6th October 2023 to 25th February 2024) that showcased the works of 17 Indian ceramists at the Clayarch Gimhae Museum in South Korea on the 50th anniversary of Indo-Korean relations. Michael is also nominated as crafts curator for the 2024 edition of the Goa-based Serendipity Arts Festival, held every December, and has a preliminary plan that will guarantee “exciting creative conversations”. She says, “The focus is on collaboration between Goan vernacular ceramic, enamel and glass artists and others outside the state to create installations with a folk tale narrative, some even using waste material. We will use both indoor and outdoor venues and host hands-on interactive workshops.”


An all-women force

In March around International Women’s Day, the Museum of Goa (MOG), in association with Bhoomi Pottery, held an all-women show titled Unearthed with six ceramicists, mostly emerging artists, who went beyond their comfort zone of creating utilitarian objects, to ideate conceptual works. None infused technology in clay but used interesting material combinations. Ragini Deshpande combined her two handcrafted loves, crochet and ceramic, to depict impermanence in interpersonal equations. Tanushree Singh juxtaposed clay art with photography. Nimmi Joshi of Mud Skippers Studio presented a dystopian future through a skeletal puffer fish and sea bass. Avani Tanya depicted sediments left behind after rivers change course. Khushboo Madani presented abstract works that encourage the ‘unearthing’ of emotions to live a positive life. Additionally, performance artiste Akanksha Dev evoked themes of body and identity through dance and smearing of clay, while raku and basic pottery workshops and a flea market served as crowd-pullers. “All the works were kiln-fired and fermented with the artists’ personal stories of joy, trauma as well as their inner reflections,” says Sharada Kerkar, Operations Head, MOG. The exhibition design, however, was a challenge. “The gallery space is large and some of the works are so tiny, they could have got lost in the curation. We hung the works from walls, ceilings, placed them on shelves and put a lot of focus on lighting. We had three gallery assistants doing 24/7 duty in shifts to safeguard the fragile works.”


For young ceramicists

Centres like the Lalit Kala Akademi (Delhi, Chennai, and Kolkata), Ceramic Center (Baroda), Roopankar (Bhopal) are equipped with space, kiln, clay, electricity and storage, which budding ceramicists and emerging art practitioners can rent at affordable costs. There are one-stop shops for clay, like Delhi Blue Pottery, Clay Station (Bengaluru), Bhoomi Pottery (Mumbai) that have reduced their reliance on imported goods and source materials and equipment from competent Indian brands. A good fallback for ceramicists to test the clientele albeit with functional wares such as teacups, gifting items, jewellery, etc. are potters’ markets that have burgeoned in Bengaluru, Goa, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Lucknow, Delhi, Chennai, Bhopal, Baroda, Ahmedabad, Auroville, among other places.

Despite the current focus on this material-based art form, it is a mighty struggle for young ceramicists to gain a toehold in the commercial contemporary art world. Many of them, despite graduating from acclaimed schools, like Golden Bridge Pottery or National Institute of Design, abandon practising in the medium to seek stable jobs or switch fields for higher pay. Issues such as maintaining a studio, paying rent, taking on freelance work, with teaching jobs at nominal pay, can be daunting. But that deserves a separate story, so watch this space for more.


This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of ON Stage.

All photos courtesy: Indian Ceramics Triennale