Pedro Bosch, Maya Khosla, & Jenny Lewis
The renowned Tamil Nadu potters, who create traditional village figures and panels in their pottery at the Sanscriti Kenda in New Delhi, packed up a selection of their work to send to a major exhibition in Paris. Writers Pedro Bosch, Maya Khosla and Jenny Lewis watched the potters prepare their wondrous creations for an international audience. The exhibition will be at The Museum of the Quai Branly at the Galerie Jardin, from March 30th to July 18th. It is called: “Autres maitres de l´Inde, creations contemporaines des adivas.”
A dual existence between matter
And spirit, poised in flight
Like a bird beating its wings over water
Against the suns rays, feeling it better
To be translated into air, to fight
The dual existence between matter
And spirit with poverty, to batter
Flesh into chastity, make it light
As a bird beating its wings over water
From ‘Perfect’ by Jenny Lewis, published in Fathom (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet, 2007)
In October 2009, seven sculptors gathered at a shady quadrangle in Sanskriti Kendra under the young teak trees with leaves like quivering quarter-plates. The men’s main goal was to bring a vibrant past to life, their main material, clay. They were folk artists three generations strong, from a long and rich ancestry dedicated to the Ayyanar tradition of temple sculpture.
The artists came from the south, dressed in simple, clay-stained browns and grays, with shining eyes and bright turbans of turquoise and pink. Their language was sharp and noisy, stirring up the peaceful space. Parrots, peacocks and crows scattered from the group and their mounds of raw clay.
Quickly the seven set to work, adding water to the mounds. The material had been dug out of land outside the villages of their home state, Tamil Nadu, then mixed with rice husks and shipped to Delhi. A senior member, Thangaia, spoke in energetic, broken English.
“Without husk, no clay,” he explained.
Thangaia is from Valathakadu, a village of twenty-five families. His co-workers are from Malayar and Varatpur, nearby villages that are just as small or marginally larger. Some among their number are related: fathers and sons; brothers and brothers-in-law, all are trained in pottery and sculpture.
The sculptors needed no plans, no drawings, to set their work in motion. The watered clay mounds were left overnight. They bent to their task, working the slurry, adding straw or sand. Then they foot-stamped, pressed and kneaded the mixture into elastic, workable form. Preparation took hours and the vigour of a collective mind, a collective concentration. Their circle of hands wedged and threw and rolled the earth into itself like dough, pressing and folding it while cleansing out the tiniest air bubbles capable of weakening the clay. Sticky as honey, more precious than bread, the union of water and earth was strong and dense. It was a union that was built to stay intact through high fire.
“This is the matter”, Thangaia stated simply.
He was here in 1992, leading a group of sculptors in creating Sanskriti’s own Ayyanar temple. True to tradition, the temple has been placed close to the Sanskriti Campus boundary. A small flight of stairs leads to the quadrangle, where the life-sized horses of brick and smoky gray stand to attention, their ears erect as if listening to the words of the god in their presence.
This time the sculptors were creating sculptures for an exhibition in France. When the clay was ready, they shaped pieces into coils. Their hands were their main tools. Each coil was created out of a long, snake-shaped roll. Thangaia distributed small portions of clay to the younger members, Kumyryseam and Thyntawuthepana, who patiently shaped coil upon coil, a ritual that goes back over a thousand years. Each coil was placed above the last, a circle over a circle, one snake eating its own tail above another eating its own tail. Each was flattened and pressed, merging it with the one below. Clay cylinders were also rolled out with a piece of wood for the making of the legs.
One circle at a time, they shaped small clay towers ready to become cylinders of varying shapes and sizes. Coils were joined to coils or to flat pieces by pouring water, and maintaining the plaster in place until it had partially dried. They chattered, their laughter exploded, but all the while their hands remained steady, clapping against wet earth, pressing it into form. Practice kept them close to perfection. Here was a horse leg, here an elephant torso, a bull’s head, a woman warrior’s hand. The potters’ craft was a resurrection, a conversation with history, a ritual from the past coming alive.
Mass movement is prearranged:
minds are emptied of everything
but vector. One language, one ethos
creates from collective memory
working shoulder to shoulder,
with little room for argument.
Stories built from shapeless earth
and inner vision, stand tall.
The Ayyanar temple tradition has remained intact since sometime in the third century A.D., primarily in the Salem and Pudukottai districts of Tamil Nadu. Aiya, the root word for the god Ayyanar, means revered person. The figures in Ayyanar temples stand cleansed and blackened and well-weathered, ready to protect residents and travelers. These temples have no priests. Ceremonies are initiated by the senior-most member among the sculptors. The sculptor is considered to be an intermediary with the divine spirits of the temple. His ritual itself is a circle repeated and repeated over generations, creating almost-identical shapes and figures.
The vision of these folk artists is to re-create a private universe, a god and his army of protective forces. Ayyanar temples are presided over by a god of the same name, who is flanked by his attendants guards, warriors, horses and elephants and bulls who crowd the stage, standing guard. Ayyyanar is easily recognized as he has large teeth, an undulating moustache, blown out eyes and wrinkled forehead. Horses and elephants, the archetypes of guardian spirits, are created with faces of anger, poise, or breathless anticipation. The temple is installed at the outer boundary of each village to protect it.
After the horse heads were made, they were sculpted, with a knife or simply with the thumbnail. The eyebrows were drawn and the teeth defined. The creation of the eyes—calm, wide or furious—was always supervised by Thangaia. The bells, the reins and trappings, the garlands or the kirthimukha (grotesque faces) were modeled separately and stuck on in a cycle of muddying, watering, and drying. Smaller figures, Ganesh, Nandi, and women warriors, were carved at the same rapid pace.
When using clay, sculptors work with all four elements. They harvest the earth itself, shape and reshape it with water, and take it on a long journey through fire and air. Water bonds with the earth and makes it supple; fire and air give it strength.
When the pieces were complete, the potters prepared for a firing. The crew members assembled bricks and built a small circular room, which were carefully filled with sun-dried clay pieces. The kiln was packed. Its interior looked like the end of a mad love night, a leg close to a head, which in turn rested on a hand. The team loaded their just-made kiln with wood.
What dyed the sky and stained their hands
was longing held open for a moment
before dusk slid into shadow,
the last brick all but closed the kiln.
Matches were lit. The potters blew fire to life and stoked it. Heat raged close to their faces as they nourished the fire with a constant supply of fresh-cut wood. The fire grew, flames shooting high above the kiln chimney, like a small volcano exhaling crimsons and golds. Each sculptural piece was bathing in flames. Sparkles filled the darkness of that propitious day, specially selected, but the work was hard in spite of the soft drinks and the peanuts we ate throwing the shells in. We looked as voyeurs through a small eye-space created by one missing brick. The pieces were there in the middle of a red inferno. Most of a night passed between the minute a struck match lit wood and the minute the flames were left unfed, untended.
The sculptures were biscuit-fired by the pitch-black hours of early morning. They emerged the morning the kiln was cool.
First light resuscitated the world
of color, breathing silver and tan
into biscuit-ware, pink into pillars,
brick-red memories of flame
into clay horses.
Some bodies and heads had cracks and were repaired. The pieces were now intact, ready to be painted. Close to the destroyed kiln, some of them acquired the virginal virtues of white, others were fully painted as they are in Tamil Nadu. Depending on the subject, the statue or the style, some were not colored. Painted, each color had significance. A red face denotes anger, a blue neck is associated with calm.
Elephants and cows full of color were incorporated into a joyous army. Their journey had begun. They are now on their way to the Brandy Museum, very close to the Eiffel Tower in France. They will be installed close to the museum entrance. Wooden boxes were constructed and the terracotta pieces were wrapped in synthetic polymers. One by one, the sculptures vanished, bound for another landscape.
Repetition is everything, a chorus
of sculptors like a flock of ancient birds
who have hunted this particular light
deep in their work, deep in their song.
Repetition is everything. It is god
And guardian, horse and rampart,
Repetition masters the art of space.
Sanksriti Kendra, New Delhi, January 2010: © Pedro Bosch, Maya Khosla & Jenny Lewis
Pedro Bosch is a Mexican physicist who is specializes in the study of materials. He obtained his physics degree in Mexico City at UNAM, and his PhD at the Universite Claude Bernard of Lyon, France. The fields of research that have interested him are catalysis, the retention of radioctive wastes, and the study of archaeological and anthropological materials. He manages to reconcile his scientific activity with literature and music. Over the last six months he wrote a book on natural zeolites during a residence in Sanskriti Kendra, India, where he found the inspiration for this text.
Maya Khosla is a naturalist and writer from India who is now based in California. Her poetry collections are Heart of the Tearing and Keel Bone (Bear Star Press, 2003) which won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. She is also working on non-fiction: essays inspired by field biology. Web of Water, a guidebook, was published by Golden Gate
National Parks Conservancy Press in 1997. She greatly enjoyed her time at the Sanskriti Foundation and teaming with Pedro Bosch and Jenny Lewis to develop this essay.
Jenny Lewis is a regular contributor to Molossus.