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Terra Natura
Art critic Uma Nair writes on the status of contemporary Indian ceramics.

Art is as flighty as the weather. No sooner is an art movement deemed passé than the new avant-garde picks it up. In India, specifically in the capital city of Delhi ceramic artists have slaved for years, arduously seeking matter and materiality in the urban chaos in which they live.

P. Daroz, Kristine Michael, Vineet Kacker, Manisha Bhattacharya and Ela Mukherjee were specifically chosen by me for this debut of a curatorial effort because I was exploring a synergy that would exhibit not only the paths of progression but also the intrinsic diversity in their ability to question and create within the expansion of their own sensibility.

This was an invitation to Terra Natura, showcasing 5 ceramic artistes together for the first time in terms of a show that seeks to unravel distinctive idioms in the language of ceramics. One of the criticisms about trends in Indian ceramics is that shows have presented Indian ceramic artistes aping the West as well as South East Asia, this show seeks to bring in indigenous Indian elements into the ceramic form, as well as look for quaint and timeless probing in the world of the inner and the outer contexts of ceramics.

In requesting the artists to create 7-10 works both in the large as well as medium and small formats, I would like to state that the quest in bringing five of them together was to look for a confluence of opposite characteristics, iconic references and enchanting imagery.

My request then lay on the foundation of a tangential foray into creativity so that the works signify their signature but also reflect ingenuous inspiration. Hence the excitement of having a never seen before postmodern fantasy that harks back to infinite elements from Indian cultural associations was the silent quest of this curatorial venture. While the market is important this show must be viewed for its intensity of purpose and its strength of substance.

In India, a new generation of artists has emerged with the drive to translate its venerable traditions into a contemporary language. These five ceramic artists have created for themselves a niche of sorts, out of a desire to be different. Their work, sometimes on the wheel, sometimes off it in a sculptural quest as evidenced in the exhibition, seems to belie the ideological opposition between craft and disposable culture. These ceramists embrace a consumable culture with a differential attitude, recalling perhaps the human response as well as history in evaluating and recasting it in ceramic forms that forge not only a cohesive unity but also a wide diversity of cultures from within and without.

Evocative epochs: P. Daroz

P. DarozFor Daroz who travels all over the world , has 30 years of experience behind him, and comes back with influences his works move from one phase to another, from ancient cultures, to the creation of ceramic objects that hold a peculiar prestige that culls the best of tradition with the modernist gaze in terms of an erudite explanation. On a visit to Egypt he said: I kept looking at the architectural forms and I wanted to break the aesthetics of what I saw. ' The extant paintings from ancient Greece, that adorned the ceramic vessels got recessed in his inner psyche.

Daroz exemplifies that entendre as he brings to his works a historic amalgam with the flashback to symbolism and the contemporary trends in glazing and the language of forms. 'The Chinese warriors that he saw at China became the heads of his urn like Aladdin jars that grew in bulbous magnificence. 'I used the tops of the jars to create the figures of the warriors heads, ' says he. I wanted to play with the different architectural elements and it was such a feeling of fragility and fascination combined to go back in time and play with the different forms.

When objects are designed to be thrown away, there is little encouragement to enjoy their material being. Ceramists like Daroz press the pause button on tangential ability, enabling us to appreciate the subtle forms of clay that get juxtaposed into the elements of historicity. Other than cast his forms, Daroz delicately gives us a porcelain slip. The bisque firing burns away the cardboard and then the work is fired again at a higher temperature. He renders his subject in unique forms, sometimes in varied multiples like the two masked faces. He assembles them into split-face like structures, reintroducing the culture of handwork and the equivocal tenor of tonality. The masked face here in porcelain when lit up harks back to yesteryear. It was a work like this which Daroz recently took for the Beijing Biennale. The porcelain face of the Chinese image is intrinsically a flashback to the past for Daroz, who has always been fascinated by history and culture.

P. Daroz"I was amazed at the harmony, the sense of proportion that the Chinese civilisation had so many hundreds of years ago, " Daroz said.

After his trip to China, he embarked on a series of warrior heads that he used as lids for his huge Aladdin-like urns that he glazed in splendid tones of barium sulphate.

"The soldiers in terracotta were so fascinating, I thought about them for days. The faces that I created, even the warrior heads have a definite spirituality about them and a vibrancy that holds them in a timeframe, " he said.

Known for his precision and perfection with glazes, Daroz has worked arduously for 30 years on different forms - both sculptural as well as huge urns and murals. His creations grace numerous corporate foyers and hotels all over the country.

"Using the timeframe to give a sense of history, bringing it back and forth, has always been an important part of my creation. In my work you will see that I have tried to frame fragility and the potency of power, " he said.

In the four platter like circular creations, he stencils them with edgy dynamics about delineations in history, far from the noble sentiments espoused by his bearded forebears in the masks. Despite the immediacy of his materials, Daroz's works are the product of painstaking processes of translating the incidental and perfectionist tenor of glazes, the ceramist in him labours intensively to render the 'raw' feel of his understanding of graphics. The use of ceramics as a medium to convey ideas normally seen in images from antiquity gives his work added weight. They add the substance of honesty to what otherwise might seem personal indulgence.

Charismatic Cornucopia: Kristine Michael

Kristine MichaelThe writer, author, teacher and sculptress in the art of ceramics, Kristine Michael has at least two decades of empowered works behind her. In this exhibition she wants and claims to be a potter having continuously privileged the clay material and wanting to maintain a relationship with the vital and integral power of the form. She calls a number of her works 'Cornucopia'.

The series of ceramic works titled 'Cornucopia' emerge out of an earlier engagement with the nurturing aspect of life and nature as she unravels a series, which composed of groups of chrome red and yellow pears and capsicum on striped black and white ceramic pillows. 'My work has moved from the single object in a series to multiple similar objects in an organized placement that has meaning when viewed as a whole. The relations between objects in a space fascinate me, and they then move beyond being mere copies or representations of the natural object'says Kristine. ' Twenty years ago, inspired by the sea and spirals in natural organic forms, I started making shells and small sea creatures. Increasing versatility with the ceramic medium and its vagaries of clay, surface finishes and kilns allowed me to expand the way these objects were made ? through raku, pit firing, salt glazed stoneware, wood fired stoneware, porcelain, coloured clay, maijolica and luster. '

However, she has become more and more involved as a ceramic sculptor in the materials, growing distant from the initial form of the daily-use object. Kristine entertains a body-to- body relationship with clay; she kneads it, mixes it, folding it intensely again and again in order to capture individual forms, like her 'Lidded vessels' and 'Lidded Fruits'

That play with her intense preoccupation with nature's elements giving us the symbolic sensation of born from the earth. 'Throughout this creative journey, I have maintained a dialogue with my inner self, trying to make sense of life through my art, translating haunting human experiences like a fractured search for meaningful construction with nature's sensory and sensual evidence around me' she adds.

'The word 'cornucopia' is the end of the horn of plenty ? life's cache which opens into a harvest' she elaborates. 'Today's world has the crass and vulgar along with simplicity and beauty, tawdry glitter lives alongside true gold'. . These forms do not come without fights, twists, conflicts, and even some resistance exerted by the artist against herself and against the material in his quest for unknown territories. Her aim, indeed, is to give birth to forms elaborated on bases, always renewed, and yet, paradoxically, relatively constant. Hence, the name we give them: magnificent matrices from nature. They mainly include fruits and vessels and are put into shape and realized in successive series

These forms retain the imprint of the folding, torsion and violence exerted, producing embossing, tearing, cracks, grooves and furrows, which contribute to the structure and the texture of the surface. The artist refuses the abstraction of a structure which would evoke the informal or the anti-form as a result of a simple game or in randomly accumulating or piling up matter.

Preferring the relative objectivity of the link with her initial form, her aim is definitely not to produce variations of a known object but to start her creative process from a guiding line in order to look for a form possessing a framework which will become singular. Hence, the name 'form-objects' we give to these creations.

Capturing Contemplation: Vineet Kacker

Vineet Kacker took Delhi by storm when he held a show that were a series of caskets a few years ago. The contemplative idiom and the freezing of the ritual in the ceramic medium is what remained in one's inner recesses. These works started acquiring further freedom and expressive strength when the artist devised a double-casing technique; he has gradually moved sideways, both at the form level and in his way of leaving the imprint of his hands on the material. In his many sojourns over the monasteries in the North he began creating works that were both monumental in tone as well as smaller elements of play. From Sutra Stones, to Totem Poles to Hanuman Remix Vases his idiom transcended the mundane to capture contemplative moorings within and without.

'The Sutra stones are inspired by the carved Buddhist Mani stones found in the Himalayas' says Vineet. ' The colours denote the elements-red for fire, ochre for earth, blue for water. The stones, 21" across, are also meant to be actual seats to sit on (and meditate). I like the fact that for most people there is a tension created by the act of putting sacred mantras where one would rest one's behind!' he says in humour. ' The glazes are mostly dry and earthy yet colorful. '

'The Spirit Totem is inspired by wayside shrines' he explains. They become a series of small quaint structures that get dramatic because of the threads he twines around them. Perhaps somewhat intriguing is the way he uses the celadon surfacing to give us another feel of the days of yore. ' I make several smallclay elements from stamps and molds, and then collage them together, reflecting in a sense the incremental way in which street shrines evolve. ' he says. ' The icons themselves are composite ones, the body of one matched with the head of another. I like the idea of using oriental celadon type glazes with very Indian imagery, highlighted with the wrapping of ceremonial Tibetan colored thread. '

Then he gives us two marvelously mesmeric Hanuman Remix Vases that have juxtaposed images on them that speak evocatively of the intense magic of imagery in the ritual iota of memory. ' The Hanuman Remix Vase as the name suggests uses a composite Hanuman head on a Buddha body- an irreverent take combining two symbols that stand for love(hanuman) and compassion(Buddha)'says Vineet.

All his pieces are in Stoneware, fired to cone 10 (1300 degrees centigrade) in a gas fired kiln. They made using all different techniques - wheel throwing, hand-building, coiling and molds.

Zen Strands: Manisha Bhattacharya

The dynamics emerging from Manisha's raku works evokes what Deleuze has called "a muscular conception of the material which generates springs everywhere"; indeed, we gradually feel a greater sensitivity to the quiet energy spread by Manisha up to the point it triggers the feeling we open to a breach in the opaqueness of appearances; she leaves the imprint of the vibration of the muscle torturing the material, and of the gesture involving the whole body while applying the glaze and then peeling it off. This energy infused in matter is so present that we can qualify it as organic reflection of the crackle.

'These are Raku fired' says Manisha. 'I first burnish my forms & then get them bisqued. Post bisque a peel-off glaze is applied & Raku'd. . Post firing , the work is reduced . The smoke meanders through the crackled glaze to form the carbon black lines on the pots. Smoke lines can be random or premeditated. Post-reduction the glaze is peeled off. the finished pots don't have a layer of glaze. Sometimes I sand-blast the forms to create an interesting play of smooth & granulated surface texture'

In the smallest pot in this show a raku fired tensile creation by Manisha we can see the strands of texture that have blended into the smoke. This work has a mystic quality about it. That sculptural strength has also a relationship with flesh, with sensuality, as it seems to spark off a form belonging to a space of desire; the artist manages to convey some of the feelings she experiences while decorating her works in the art of minimalism; in the second series of black and white creations their imprints can be perceived in the stripes and furrows preserved on the surface skin. Furthermore, that plastic strength asserts itself in the force lines present in the artist's structures; it results from an operative mode based on the organization of the force lines that constitute the form-objects. One can see a confrontation at work, a tension between horizontality and verticality. . 'I know what attracts me to these forms but I haven't really named the series' she explains. Basically I am working on making the interior space as interactive as the exterior. These forms welcome the viewer to look in & get sucked down the mysterious alley into the enclosed space of these globulous forms.

Each piece in Manisha's hands possesses a predominantly horizontal or vertical axis, and yet we can perceive a resistance of the opposite axis in all of them. This work of transversality appears also in the gestural result of the peeling off of the glaze on the surface. Lines, black flat tints, vertical or horizontal according to the piece, run across or down it, but that dominance is always counterbalanced by other lines and flat tints running in the opposite way, which create an opposite tension; as well they contribute to the structure of the tension inherent in the work. Finally, the singular colour of the glaze provides a specific light which renders the space palpable. This light is present through the contrasts between the flat tints of intense blacks, the background most often white with the different variations of hues scattered over the surface. On one same structure, these contrasts produce blocks of colour-lights crossed by ridges which, in turn, yield waves of light.

Inner Strengths: Ela Mukherjee

Think of works that bring back reflections of fables like 'The shoemaker and the elves, ' Into the three lobed mahogany toned structures, Ela embellishes a leafy twist that reflects the density of vision in creation.

'For my works form plays the pivotal role. I largely do hand built ceramics' says Ela. ' Even if I do wheel thrown forms, later I alter them or add hand built forms to them. I usually work in series that is I take up a simple form and explore it in various ways by altering or adding other forms to each of them. It is the form, which decides the use of colour. 'she adds. Her works have a plastic strength about them.

This plastic strength generates a fermentation, a breathing such as it seems to carry vibrations. Using Paul Klee's idea, what emerges is "an in-between world where one doesn't talk and can't see, but where one works". Thus, the greater the dimensions of the structures the artist confronts, such as those of the two lit works , the more assertive that strength.

In addition, the artist has managed to produce a differentiating operative function in each series created as well performing at the levels both of form and of the glaze structuring the surface. She keeps managing to escape into diversions from known territories in her quest for interactions of forms and minimal glaze surfaces. That differentiating operating function acts while maintaining a coherence that allows the singular identity of the work to be recognized.

'I work in stoneware and fire my works in my gas kiln, says Ela. 'I primarily work with different coloured clay bodies, coloured slips, engobes and pigments. The use of glaze is minimal in my works. If I use it, the glaze is usually matt. Mostly I leave a part of a work unglazed, so the clay body and the matt glaze work in contrast. At times I also incorporate other materials like metal, textile with ceramics. This time apart from using metal, I have also introduced light as a part of my works'.

Ela successfully achieves those transgressions insofar as she has imposed on herself constraints and lines of research, while allowing a potential of randomness to take place in the effect of fire over the tensions given to form, as well as over the practice of glaze overlapping. Thereby Ela offers us the work of a sculptor endowed with a singular sculptural strength and differentiating operative functions.

Curator's conclusion:

All five ceramists entertain a body-to-body relationship with the glazing process as well as well as the sculptural, their surges contained in different symbolic vats, are applied with the hand or a brush, and also thrown on the structure. This set of gestures implies a dynamics involving the whole body and leaves its mark on the surfaces to produce the effects expected. However, submitting a piece of work to the fire introduces an uncertainty or random factor that is included in the technique used, as revealed by the overlapping of glazes which sometimes may not have been wanted, and by the pouring and dripping of the glazes.

'The incidental nature of firing is exciting, ' says Daroz. Perhaps after firing, the pieces take on varied hues, maybe a rather pale hue, or a dark one or a smoked one, with variations on the surface that stand out against backgrounds and are scattered with flat intense blacks which contribute to its structures. That varied textural terrain is what excites when the surface is covered with lines, marks or images that appear in the form of multiple strokes and dots produced by the liquid dripping or by salt oxidation. It conveys the feeling of the core of a mineral world, without yet vanishing.

Besides, following its evolution, this show Terra Natural appears to be more and more animated by flows of energy and forces of differentiation. Sure enough, the artists have acquired a heightened relationship with their clay materials, a greater freedom in their practice of glaze application, a more intense knowledge of the relationships of forms and glazes with fire, but all this cannot entirely account for that work's development. The concepts borrowed both from experience, the sculptural strength, and from the loss of firings, the differentiating operative functions, all shed insights on their works. The processing forms together with the style of glazing seem indeed to have become a forming strength endowed with several features.

The works in Terra Natura deliver visual excitement. Without the bright colors the consumerist culture usually favours, they focus on structure: line, shape and weight. Distinct rhythms emanate, as varied as Vineet's Buddhist leanings to Ela's earthiness, and the longer you look the more colour you see in the subtle gradations.

Terra Natura opens onto a serious range of metallic and non metallic tints, many of which look like molten colour , or any number of specially mixed alloys, as well as creamy , ivory tonalities. If Manisha even gets black and white to function like colors, their matte surfaces and unfathomable depths making them as mysterious as any of her other indescribably sensual shades. (In art, black and white ordinarily belong to drawing, which tends toward the clarity of rationality rather than the intuitive ambiguity of color. )

Gestures celebrate Zen simplicity and colors melt into one another. In some works, bare linen grounds evoke the gritty glee of Russian Constructivism. The dim lit face of Daroz's porcelain makes man look only more liquid and hallucinatory. Kristine has managed to transform the cacophony of clashing colors, competing rhythms and logical contradictions into a spunky symphony of visual pleasures that are exponentially more idiosyncratic, freewheeling and fearless than any one work's internal composition. Terra Natura becomes a quiet celebration of the artistic quest that blends the dynamics of minimalist moorings with the maximal energy of artistic intent.


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