Kabir, pottery and the potter : The Tribune India

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’Art & Soul

Kabir, pottery and the potter

The rhythmic movement of the potter’s hands and their fashioning of vessels have inspired poets and artists

Kabir, pottery and the potter

A blacksmith at work.

BN Goswamy

And while he (the potter)

plied his magic art —

For it was magical to me —

I stood in silence and apart,

And wondered more and more to see

That shapeless lifeless mass of clay

Rise up to meet the master’s hand,

And now contract and now expand,

And even his slightest touch obey.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For in the market-place, one dusk of day

I watch’d the potter thumping his wet clay:

And with its all obliterated tongue

it murmur’d — ‘Gently, brother,

gently, pray!’

— Omar Khayyam

I look at the images of potters at work and continue to be struck by that look of complete absorption on their faces as the wheel moves and those hands which ‘now contract and now expand’

Just the other day, Kalapini — gifted singer, daughter of the great Kumar Gandharva — was here on her way back to Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, and stopped by to be with us for some part of the day. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned to Kumarji, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year. And in the course of it came up his love for, in fact his being soaked in the poetry of, Kabir, which he submitted to and sang of again and again, each time with a renewed, moving passion. Kabir, it is certain, was his soulmate, his voice across centuries of time. That wonderful utterance of the great saint-poet — Ek hi maati, ek kumhaara/ek sabhi ka sirjanhaara (There is one Clay, and there is just one Potter/from it He creates everyone, even-handedly, all of us) — he used to recite to himself, she said, ever so often.

At Chokhi Dhani near Chandigarh; the potter Iddu, also at Chokhi Dhani

Among all the crafts I, personally speaking, love pottery the most perhaps. But to be able to read into that craft, distinguishing meaning from information, is given only to great minds. And I often wonder about that. From time to time, I look at the images of potters at work and continue to be struck by that look of complete absorption on their faces as the wheel moves and those hands which ‘now contract and now expand’, create things from simple clay. A favourite of mine is a drawing by Kehar Singh — that highly gifted 19th century Punjabi painter, so little seen and so little talked about — who drew faces and forms with consummate ease.

Working as he was most likely for the British who were collecting data of class and caste and professions, he seems to have decided not to draw generalised images of professionals, but of specific individuals pursuing their professions: a tracker and his companion, a wandering jogi, a carpenter, a nihang, a Shaiva pandit, and so on, each a brilliantly rendered sketch inscribed neatly with the name, and sometimes the village, of the person portrayed. The person who I speak of here, and reproduce an image of, courtesy the Chandigarh Museum, is a potter, Nanak by name, recorded as being 130 years old, seated on a rug, while an apprentice, or his son perhaps, sits close but below him, moving the wheel with his long staff. Around them lie some pots that have already come off the wheel. To look intently at the two portraits yields delight. And is in some ways moving.

The potter Nanak, and his son. By Kehar Singh, 19th century. Chandigarh Museum.

Somewhat in that line, I recently had the occasion to observe a gifted young potter at work in Chokhi Dhani, a cultural village, not far from Chandigarh, which showcases Rajasthani traditions. Spread all over its sprawling site are kiosks, some covered, many of them under the sun, where dancers dance, fortune tellers tell fortunes, marksmen offer challenging targets, and craftsmen ply their trades. I was intrigued by the fact that somewhere in the organisers’ thoughts was the idea of bringing in all the ‘original’ craftsmen who are mentioned in one of the most ancient of our texts, the Rigveda, as the sons of Vishwakarma, literally the god who was the ‘Maker of the World’. Vishwakarma had five sons, it is stated. Named Manu, Maya, Tvastra, Shilpi and Visvajna, each of them was a craftsman — a potter, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a stonemason and a goldsmith, all essential to the functioning of a settled society. Here, at this site, I saw at least a potter, a blacksmith and a goldsmith: perhaps the other two were also there, somewhere.

I decided to spend time watching at least two of them demonstrating their methods and their skills: the blacksmith and the potter. Working with the most primitive looking of tools, at my asking, the blacksmith forged for me in iron, a perfectly shaped and proportioned letter M — the initial of the name of my grandson, Madhav — and I was given it to carry home.

An even greater delight for me was to watch the potter at work. Athletic-looking, neatly turned out with a typical lahariya turban on his head and a kurta and salwar, he was absorbed in his work, welcoming visitors, turning out simple pots on his wheel which he moved with great energy, complete calm on his face. I was drawn to him and engaged him in a conversation whenever he had a moment to spare and breathe. I asked him his name and he said, simply, ‘Iddu’, which was short of Eid Muhammad. When I mentioned the honoured place that potters had in ancient times and in our texts, he felt very interested in knowing more. I spoke of Kabir. He had, of course, heard the name but knew none of his dohas touching upon pottery and potters. He asked me to recite some, if I would: something I did with pleasure. I began with one of the best known of Kabirji’s compositions on mortality:

Maati kahe kumhar sey, tu kya raunde moye

Ik din aisa aaega main raundoon-gi toye

(Arrogantly you trample me under your feet, the Earth spoke to the Potter once:

When the day (of your burial) comes it will be I who will be trampling upon you.)


Guru kumhaar sis kumbh hai ghari-ghari kaarhey khot

Andar haath sahaar dey, upar sey dey chot

(The guru is the potter and his pupil the vessel; repeatedly he keeps ‘hammering’ it into shape.

In fact, he is supporting it from the inside with his hand while slapping

and beating it from the outside)

Iddu was thrilled hearing these. Just one more, he asked, as some reader of this piece might also do. I went on:

Kabira hari ras yun piya, baaki

rahi na chhaak

Paaka kalas kumhaar ka bahu-ri

na charhibey chaak

(So much of the rasa of devotion to Hari have I imbibed, that I am completely satiated now.

Once a pot is baked, can it be

placed on the wheel again?)

Who, other than Kabir, asks questions like these?

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