Pottering around

Pottering around

Puducherry’s creative pottery hub has fired the kiln and career of many a studio potter, writes Surekha Kadapa-Bose

Pottery on display at Phoenix

There is a very interesting story as to why the Union Territory of Pondicherry or Puducherry located in South India, has become a ‘Kashi’ of ceramic or stoneware pottery of India. The credit for this thriving hub of pottery goes to Deborah Smith of Los Angeles.

In the mid-1960s Deborah, after her graduation in Japanese language plus a course in pottery from the Stanford University in the US, went to Japan to enhance her pottery craft. She was also an ardent follower of spiritual guru Sri Aurobindo and his disciple Mirra Alfassa, better known as Mother. In the 1970s, Deborah followed Alfassa to India and was asked to start a craft which would involve the local people of Puducherry to help them earn a decent livelihood. Deborah thought of pottery as that would involve many locals who were traditional terracotta pottery makers. So, in 1971 along with Ray Meeker, another American ceramic potter whom she had met in the ceramic department of Southern California, she set up the Golden Bridge Pottery (GBP) studio in Puducherry. Meeker too was interested in the philosophy of East and had travelled to the ashram of Sri Aurobindo.

Thus began the story of Puducherry pottery. It was from here that the journey of many present-day successful potters took wings. In India, though pottery was in usage from Harappan and Indus Valley Civilisation, and many remnants of pottery of that era have been excavated, with GBP it was for the first time that the potters of this region started understanding that there is something called very high-temperature firing, gas firing, soda firing besides the traditional wood firing kilns and glazing.

And because of the proximity of Auroville established by Mother, Puducherry started attracting many highly qualified men and women from different professions, and those with an interest in pottery found their calling with GBP. In fact, when we imagine sleek looking elite utility pottery like coffee mugs, cups, plates, bowls etc., we can think of only the simple earth or ash coloured handmade elite tableware. They are all the products of Puducherry-Auroville pottery hub. It’s their simple chic which has got a worldwide market and in India it is sold only from boutiques or high-end shops.

Puducherry, which now has a parallel niche of about 100 potters, the studio potters, who of course still make the usual tableware “for sustainment” as they laughingly admit, have stepped out of their comfort zone to indulge in their creative desires. Not only do they try different shapes and sizes but they also experiment with different textures, colours and firing techniques to come out with unique non-utility pieces. The end products resemble more of an abstract art to be used as interior décor pieces. But sometimes many pieces also make a social or political statement. Looking at their work it becomes easy to club them as sculptors rather than potters.

Designs by Rakhee Kane
Designs by Rakhee Kane

As every artist has a signature mark that identifies his or her works, even the studio potters have a mark of their own. Like Rakhee Kane of Aavartan Studio Pottery in Auroville. If you see ceramic pottery with a marbled texture or a lovely brilliantly glazed product with small painted motifs, you can be sure the pottery has come from Rakhee.

Or take the Puducherry-based potter Indrani Singh Cassime. In her studio, Phoenix, one can see both, very delicate pottery pieces which she uses to make decorative items like electric lamps, mirror frames etc., murals and large heavy stone like pieces which resemble stone sculptures of the bygone era.

Rakhee, an alumna of Industrial Ceramics at National Institute of Designs, Ahmedabad and a trained painter is very interested in the pottery made and used in rural India, like the architecture and landscape of Rajasthan.

Rakhee Kane
Rakhee Kane

She says, “We came to learn from GBP and got so enchanted by this kind of pottery and the conducive atmosphere for the studio potters that we decided to stay put here.’’

“Another important reason for us potters to make this region our home is the easy availability of all raw materials (clay, wood), local helpers who know the basics of pottery so we don’t need to train them, plus a ready-made market. Puducherry and Auroville are famous for pottery, so buyers from all over India and the world come seeking us and our products,’’ says Indrani, a Visual Art Graduate from Delhi, trained at GBP and who, after getting married to a Puducherry-based businessman, continued her romance with pottery in this Union Territory.

What more can an artistic potter ask for? They have huge spaces for their studios where three or four kilns can be easily installed, clay is sourced from the nearby large Ousteri Lake (800 hectares shared by both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry) and Casuarina trees grown as the cash crops to fire their kilns.

That contentment makes Puducherry potters form a great pottery hub.   

​ Phoenix Potteries ​
Phoenix Potteries