The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 28, 2000
'Art and Soul

Commerce in craft
By B.N. Goswamy

OUT of kindness, a friend in Philadelphia gave me, recently, together with a small handmade earthen vase, a small book, as a gift. The two had evidently been bought, as a set, at the gift shop of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I am sure a handsome price was paid for it. The vase was pleasant enough, but what I found of uncommon interest was the book which accompanied it. Titled, Redware: America’s Folk Art Pottery it was essentially designed as a guide for collectors of antiques. There were in it the author’s Ramblings and Observations on earthenware but, more than this, notes on prices of old pieces. More than 200 objects must have been illustrated in the volume, each with a price tag. The intent behind the effort – promotion of sales, feeding the trade in so-called antiques - was obvious.

It is probably small-minded of me to be writing in this vein about a gift that I had received. But it would be less than honest, were I not to say that at each step, as I leafed through the book, I was entertaining very mixed

feelings about what I was reading. On the one hand, there was some information in the book; an occasional piece also had an air of elegance. Most of the objects included in it looked, at least to my eyes, very ordinary, devoid of any quality. That people collect the most commonplace, or outlandish, of things, I am well aware of. But here I clearly got the feeling that I was being witness to attempts at creating an artificial, hyped-up, market.

  American earthenwareRedware, as it is called, made from the most commonly found reddish clay all over the world, and consisting of utilitarian objects of everyday use – jugs and bowls, jars and bean pots, pie plates and pipe bowls – was classified in the book according to a ‘Rarity Chart’, alerting the potential collector of ‘antiques’ to possibilities of finding bargains in flea markets, garage sales, and the like. Especially emphasised was the fact that ‘American Redware’ has a value of its own, even though it partakes wholly of the character of similar pottery that used to be made in Europe, and started being made by settlers in their new found land when they moved here. Slipped in, however, were cleverly phrased statements like these: "Probably the greatest bewilderment facing collectors of antique redware is the inability to distinguish American-made pieces from imported European redwares. Since both products were part of the same pottery-making tradition and one tended to

more or less emulate the other, categorisation by country is in most cases a matter of conjecture." Again, there

was the information that a pottery workshop in North Carolina continues to turn out redware that is very traditional in shape and technique, and is therefore very difficult to distinguish from older, colonial pieces. Where does all this leave a collector is, after this, anyone’s guess.

All this, however, is not to say that I did not learn anything from the book. It was clearly written, and gave some precise information. There were terms in it that I did not know, and these were defined. That oxides are powdered mineral compositions used to colour, highlight, or decorate ceramic objects I might have known in one form or the other, but I did not know that the technique called ‘sgraffito’ involved slipping, incising, and oxide decorating redware with designs and scenes. Or that the word literally meant, ‘to scratch’. Again, I did not know that Quimper was the name given to traditional, centuries-old, French folk art pottery often made from red clay. So, I learnt something: as I said, my feelings about the book were very mixed.

But one thing the book did succeed in touching my thoughts on was the complete lack of works such as this on the countless crafts that we in India have, and have nurtured for centuries. If anyone has any doubts about the healthy state of these crafts, even today, and the continued survival of manual skills at the highest level, he has only to visit, even casually, the crafts demonstration area in a place like the Crafts Museum in Delhi, or even the Dilli Haat. One would find oneself mixing, in a matter of minutes, with the most skilled of weavers and potters, glass-blowers and bronze-casters, basket-makers and lathe-workers, pata-painters and papier-mache fashioners, imagers working with iron and stone-inlayers: All drawn from different parts of the country, all within a small, dense area. But should one wish to know more about their work, the history of their craft, or their techniques, virtually nothing would be available for reading, or taking away. Certainly not with them, or even anywhere within easy reach.

I find this unacceptable. And sad. Our craft traditions are, and have been, among the oldest and the finest in the world. Why, then, I wonder, can I not learn about them through short, accessible works such as the one I have just described – with mixed feelings, to be sure – written by people who understand the subject. I am aware that learned, jargon-ridden, dissertations on individual crafts are turned out from time to time at our universities, but I speak here not of studies destined to be buried in library shelves, or, again, of glossy, high-priced books which everyone displays but nobody reads. I speak of the simple need to inform the common, but interested, reader. Not for creating an artificial ‘antique’ market, but simply for providing precise, accurate information. But, then, one asks oneself, do we possess the necessary sense of pride in our past, or even the requisite instinct for commerce?

Old wisdom

Speaking of pottery and potters, I wonder how many people know that the craft of a potter, kumbhakara, is among the five sacred crafts listed in Vedic literature. Or that one of the greatest of our saint-poets, Kabir, drew ever so often upon the imagery of pot-making, apart from weaving. I find it difficult to resist the temptation of citing at least one verse of his:

Ek hi maati, ek kumbhaara
Ek sabhi ka sirjanhaara

(One is the clay, and one the potter. One the fashioner of all beings that there are.)

This feature was published on May 21, 2000