In my three weeks at the studio, I spent a good chunk of time observing Ceramist Priya Seth work curiously and chatting with her, and trying my hand at pottery. Her work space was a deep verandah overlooking the central open space in the studio. There was a kiln, a couple of pottery wheels, some finished pieces and works in progress just lying around, and a dark and dry room the stored the many glazes and bags of clay she would use. The arched colonnade walls were painted blue. It would be HOT outside, but it felt much better under the fan. Soft spoken and patient, she would be on the potter’s wheel for hours at a stretch. It was the first time that I had met someone so engaged (almost meditatively so) in their craft and honing it further with practice. Here are bits from our conversation, jotted down in a ruled ‘classmate’ notebook, with a felt tip pen in June, 2009.
Mostly, everything I make is utilitarian. The motive comes from the clients’ need and the intention comes from my interpretation of these wants. The skill of craftsmanship that is brought in by the maker of these pieces is what makes them delightful.
Your association with your material is very hands on. What is the relationship of the creator and the raw material in the case of a ceramist? What is it for you?
Just as in furniture or textile design, the material is a crucial part of the process. With ceramics this relationship is even more interesting because the material (both clay and glaze) keeps changing little by little all the time! There are pretty much no standards. Every batch of clay sacks and glazing material is a little different from the other so the results are never the same.
So with experience, one gets a better sense of how the experiments are going to hopefully turn out. Only once you are attuned to the nature of your material can you explore further and have fun!
Tell me a little about your materials and process?
I use stone clay whose readymade sacks I order. Any clay can’t be directly used for pottery and needs to be prepared, where the water and air balance is made. Preparation of clay is another form of art altogether. We’ll not get into that for now.
There are three common processes usually; sculpting by hand, throwing clay on the wheel and slip casting. I use the throwing technique most often (on a manually operated wheel, where one has to keep kicking a parallel wheel at the bottom to make the pottery wheel spin). This is obviously slower than the casting process, but then, every piece is handmade and is imperfect. That adds an organic quality to the pieces.
What is your design ideology while making these pieces?
While utility is the starting point for the pieces, I try to bring innovation through the technique of production. I try to spend more time experimenting with shapes and glazing mixes and methods on the wheel rather than conceptualizing on the sketchbook. Aesthetic decisions are mostly intuitive.
Some of the recent pieces emerged just out of exploration on site. We attempted a BIG vessel that was fired in an earth dug pit. It’s interesting that the parts that we joined to make the piece are articulated in the finished piece. So you get a sense of how it was made. I also made these pebbles to see if these could ever come close to smooth river stones.
How has your education informed your work?
A few years ago, one of my teachers said this to me it has stuck with me since, “After you’ve understood the basics, you have to constantly keep unlearning whatever you’ve learnt to keep fresh at your craft.”
I studied ceramics in the UK and found much of my unlearning when I came back to India and began practicing. I chose to engage with local potters here, whom I would often observe for hours just to understand how they would do things. This collaborative learning has been very fruitful too.
Your process tells me about the need to be learning from local knowledge. Tell me a little about the position of the Indian potter in today's time.
The Indian Kumhar has in most cases inherited his craft but has often ended up being forced by the demand of the market. Uses terracotta usually and fires in the pit that often results in brittle pieces as the pit fire never reaches maximum temperatures high enough to impart strength to the pieces. The market does not demand innovation in the product and is also not too benevolent with the time it gives to produce. As a result, the situation produces potters who are extremely quick and efficient but still inherit invaluable ancestral information about vernacular techniques and methods. If given some space and time and catalysts, their scope of application is enormous.
Tell me a little about the history and context of studio ceramics in India?
Studio ceramics was brought to India by Sardar Gurcharan Singh sometime in the 1960s. The profession and has yet to catch the eyes of the masses. People who have been able to formally study and explore pottery in a studio are usually not so hard pressed on time to make money. They can afford to seriously invest in exploring themselves and their artistic expression. They develop their aesthetic and with better exposure are able to see their work in a wider context.
So the intersection of the two practices is the next step!
Yeah! Now it appears more obvious than how one perceives the equation from a distance. The Kumhar and ceramist can come together, learn and mutually benefit to make the practice richer in terms of the process and also its contextualization.
Do you also see intersections between ceramics and architecture? (Well, I had just entered architecture school after all, was studying to be an architect proper! I had to force connections!)
Well, in one way, buildings are like big sculptures that have a form that affects the people who use it and the people around it. The sense of aesthetic, I guess is common to both streams. There are, of course, big pieces of ceramics that are used in buildings to articulate/decorate some spaces. The work of Ray Meeker also comes to mind who designed and executed the Agni Jata- the house that was constructed and then fired to become a large, strong piece of ceramic! Also, there have been buildings like the India International Centre where ceramics have been an integral part of the building, in the floor tiles and jaalis.
Among other interesting (inspiring) things, she told me that working on clay is like sending it to school. The clay is adaptable so it better be in good hands!