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September 2004

An Auroville pottery guild

- by Priya Sundaravalli

Four potters at Mandala experiment with creative collaboration


left to right: Anamika, Chinmayi, Adil and KrishnamurthyThe pieces have just come out of the kiln. Stacked around the wisdom tree on the circular stone slab, the glazes pop and ping, cooling in the afternoon sea breeze. An azure Krishna emerges out of a bark print slab frozen mid-sway with his flute. Multiple globular pots with mysterious openings are gathered in a group; their grey, lavender and blue glazes bearing the black calligraphic upstroke of a bamboo brush. In their identical singularity, one is reminded of Russian nested dolls – a group that should not be separated. Their makers Anamika, Adil, Chinmayi, and Krishnamurthy, the potters of the Mandala studio in Auroville, walk around softly examining and communing with each other.

Coming out of creative isolation, these artists work collectively, sharing the mundane responsibilities pertaining to business while still having time for creative expression. Started in 1995 by the German Chinmayi, Mandala pottery soon welcomed the Dutch Anamika, the Tamil Krishnamurthy from the neighbouring village of Kottakarai , and the Mumbai born-and-bred Adil, each with a unique voice. But in the atmosphere of camaraderie and confluence, their voices mix and mingle and works often reveal mutual influences and styles dialogue with one another.

More recently, the quartet have started to explore the field of architectural ceramics, like a ceramic room divider commissioned by the Bangalore-based architect couple Renu and Sharukh Mistry for a home in the Kodai Hills. The installation is a series of curvaceous slabs and ribs glazed front and back in greens, blues and browns; it hangs seductively on metal wires, strung like a beaded curtain. “When there is a strong breeze, they double up as wind chimes,” says Adil. He mentions the increasing appreciation and utilization of architectural ceramics by a small but growing tribe of Indian architects. It has brought a great dynamism to the group. “For this house in Kodai, several works were commissioned,” he says pointing out to a ceramic fish mosaic for the children's bathroom. The team has unanimously named it ‘Hot lips', “because of these big flashy red lips from a special glaze we discovered in Delhi !”

Adil, Anamika and Chinmayi took part in the recent Peace and Harmony Show in New Delhi , India 's first juried international pottery exhibition. The exposure and publicity has created a sudden demand for their works. Adil for one cannot keep up with the rate at which his mixed-media mirrors made of polished driftwood and ceramic tiles sell. This interest has raised a dilemma at Mandala Pottery – how to remain small and creative yet simultaneously meet the needs of the growing market? Currently products go only to a few outlets in the country – Naturally Auroville at Chennai, Dhoop in Mumbai, and Goodness Gracious in New Delhi while special pieces for gallery exhibitions are kept in reserve, such as for an upcoming week long show in a gallery in New Delhi in October. Explains Anamika, “A solution came in the form of outsourcing the more basic work to potters in the surrounding villages. We supply the clay to them and they make the pieces to our specifications and design. The wares come back bisqued after which we do the finishing, glazing, and firing.” She adds that outsourcing has not been viewed favourably in some circles. Adil immediately counteracts, “Of course, we have been able to generate skilled employment and promote, in a small way, the local economy in our neighbouring villages. The other advantage of outsourcing has been that we are able to devote time to our own creative work.” Is there any fear that their designs will be copied and perhaps a counterfeit market occurring in parallel? “No, the finish and glaze work remains ours, and very hard to duplicate.”

Freedom of expression is the hallmark of Mandala. Each of the four artists expresses this differently. Krishnamurthy is a grounding presence. honed from years of traditional pottery skills. His works reveal a solidity, symmetry and wholeness. More focussed on functional ware like teapots, his style has recently started to “become more free and flowing” in the words of his comrades.

Adil's works exemplify a fearlessness to explore, boldly expressing through clay work that loudly express spontaneity and a raw dynamism. In his recent works, for example, the written text has made its appearance, etched on the clay surface with a rhythmic flow of hand. There are bowls, panels, platters bearing prose, poetry, ruminations, song lyrics, mantras in Sanskrit. Suddenly the works have an extra-aural dimension.

Introspection and contemplation are the basis of Anamika's path. It has led her to explore visual and tactile qualities of form. Bronze framed panels that enclose ceramic tiles studded with a series of half cups create a dimensionality much like the surf-fringed waves that break on Auroville's Repos beach. Another installation shows the rough and tumble of bowls spilling in a gurgle of harmony. She confesses to indulging her playful inner child, more recently “having fun with treating ceramic slabs as painterly canvases.” Into these evocative coloured and textures surfaces, she incorporates glass tiles sandwiching 24 carat gold-foil, tiles created from technology that developed out of the Matrimandir.

Chinmayi's works carry an upward aspiration, literally reaching towards the heights. She connects with thrown forms, particularly bottles and pots. Her work-space is quiet; the only sounds that permeate are from rustling leaves. She is at the wheel tenderly pulling the long body of a bottle, then stretching its fluted neck even higher. The form is complete – tall and delicate. She stands up to reach its mouth. She blows in slowly, and a tentative bellow echoes back from its depths and the body expands imperceptibly. A few more puffs, and the form suddenly comes alive. She taps lightly, pausing to listen to a resonant note. Satisfied, she shifts gear. With a smooth river stone, she begins the arduous process of burnishing. Behind her on the shelf, a row of bottles stands in elegant stillness. Their surfaces display varied surface treatments – smoke-fired, bubble glazed, in monotonal black or blurry colours.

Do the Indian customers have specific dislikes or preferences? “What doesn't sell are the low-fire works like the smoke-fired pottery that Anamika and I enjoy,” says Chinmayi, “though a few discerning customers do pick these up. Indians generally prefer colour. We Auroville potters had a reputation for favouring dull coloured glazes, but lately our palette has exploded with vibrant shades.” She explains how customers are now taken by surprise, reacting positively to this change. “Purple, turquoise, blues, greens, oranges, and jewelled crackle glazes are all very popular.” Mandala, obviously, has a colourful future!



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