The late Sardar Gurcharan Singh became a potter by accident – he went o help his father’s friend, Ram Singh Kabuli in his brick-making business at Delhi Potteries in 1918, where he became fascinated by pottery, watching the Pathan potters who had migrated to India at work and actually learning the basics of the craft from Abdullah. He was sent to Tokyo in 1919 by Kabuli to study commercial ceramics. He spent two years at the Higher Technical School in Tokyo where he met Bernard Leach, Kenkichi Tomimoto, Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai. He held his first solo exhibition in Tokyo. He returned to India in 1922 to continue work at Delhi Potteries but his increased attraction to studio pottery made him switch to art ceramics from commercial work. With partition, he shifted to Ambala as Superintendent of the Pottery Training Centre there and remained here till his retirement in 1952. He then returned to Delhi where with Abdullah he started Delhi Blue Art Pottery in 1952. His individual stamp was quintessentially a classical form influenced by Japanese and Korean traditions. He used a stoneware clay body and high temperature glazes, fired at 1300 degree centigrade in coal kilns. He supported himself by making glazed tiles and ceramic lattices which were bought by architects in Delhi. But simultaneously he also taught pottery to young students in an effort to popularize its practice in India. In 1983 he organized the first All-India Studio Pottery Show through AIFACS. He set up the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust in 1991 and this Trust continues to be a lively center for studio pottery striving to spread the ceramic word everywhere. He passed away in 1995. The Trust has published The Legacy of Sardar Gurcharan Singh documenting his work in detail.
Born in Bangalore in 1925, S. Krishnamurthy Mirmira joined the Quit India Movement in 1942 as a student of Ceramic Technology at the Bangalore Polytechnic. While an apprentice at the government-run porcelain insulator factory, he was inspired by Dr J.C. Kumarappa, the economist who worked with Gandhi after 1940, in the All India Village Industries Association (atvia) in Sevagram, Wardha, which he joined in 1948. He worked in the village industry section while Devi Prasad, who had recently completed his art training at Santiniketan under Nandalal Bose, joined Sevagram’s Basic Education and began Kala Bhavan. Mirmira recalls building the first kiln with Devi Prasad for the firing of terracotta-ware. Kalindi Jena was also at this time a student at Sevagram’s Kala Bhavan and stayed there till the mid-1960s.
Mirmira saw the future in the development of glazed terracotta for traditional potters as a way of reviving the local market which was flooded with competitive new materials for vessels and household objects. He joined Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement in 1951 and while walking with him through central India, he gained an insight into the social conditions of artisans, especially potters. Mirmira volunteered as Gram Sevak in Bhadrawati due to its large potters’ community and rich clay deposits and he opened the Regional Pottery Training Centre called Gramodaya Sangh in 1955 with a programme for educating the adults and children of the village in a night school, spreading information on hygiene and attempting to break the social barriers of caste within the potters’ community. He began with the making of bricks as there was a good demand, but faced resistance as it was perceived as work only done by Dalits. With the sale of the first bricks and roofing tiles.
Nearly 25 students a year were trained by Gramodaya Sangh for over 40 years. The training included the technicalities of hand and wheel work with semi-industrial processes of making, glazing, decorating and firing. Most students were later employed in the cooperative production unit and were encouraged to be independent. By 1991, six producer cooperative societies had started employing 300 artisans. This cooperative structure provided a model to others and over 15 such production units were set up in Maharashtra and neighbouring states, tied into a strong social work component in village reconstruction including road-building, school construction, the production of smokeless chulhas and filter candles for potable drinking water, digging of latrines, etc. Among these was the Central Pottery Training Institute in Khanapur where the young B.R. Pandit was one of the trainees in 1970. Four years later, he would go on to train at Bhadrawati and subsequently move to Bombay to become one of the success stories in the transition of traditional to glazed studio pottery.
Mirmira wrote one of the first books on Indian clays and glaze recipes, Indian Pottery, in 1973 after his study trips to Japan, Tanzania and the uk and in 1991 was the recipient of the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Application of Science and Technology for Rural Development. He started the whiteware unit at Bhadrawati along with innovations like the design of a paddy-husk-fired kiln (with financial assistance from the Department of Science and Technology for whom he was technical adviser for a few years), along with glazed terracotta. The products, which included a range of tableware and household objects, were sold at Bombay Bhawan and through annual exhibitions in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay.
The Gandhian-era philosophy and institutional language had, by the end of Mirmira’s life, largely disappeared into new policies that encompassed global capitalism, and Indian crafts became the marker for the globalized Indian to keep a romanticized connection to a rich heritage. Mirmira’s vision was ahead of his time; one which encompassed the training, production and marketing of glazed terracotta and low-temperature whiteware by artisans with the support of rural and urban markets. His life’s mission made a deep impact on the local village economy of Bhadrawati and was an exemplar in new modes of artisanship and entrepreneurship. The Gramodaya Sangh legacy continues even today under new leadership with pottery training courses for new generations.
Pottery has been the inspiration for more than one story of craft revival. What is now known widely as the Jaipur Blue Pottery had its first revival in the mid-19th century with the advent of the Jaipur School of Art in 1866 under the patronage of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh. The inspiration was the old blue-and-white quartz fritted tilework on Amber Fort, similar to that of Multan, Golconda, Rampur and Delhi. With an emphasis on preserving a Rajasthani design aesthetic, most of the forms were of an Indian type, like the surahi, lota and gulab pash, but with illustrative details based on miniature painting artistic devices. As the secrets of the technology lapsed with each generation and the School of Art in Kishanpol Bazaar was closed down, the craft deteriorated in quality.
It was again the intervention of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who along with Maharani Gayatri Devi gave the much-needed patronage in post-independence India to the ailing School of Art, which inspired the young Kripal Singh Shekhawat, recently graduated from shantiniketan as a painter in the modernist miniature and fresco style, to set his hand to the revival of this distinctive style of pottery. (15) This infused the Jaipur style with new elements from Bengal. Besides being the ceramics and painting instructor from 1963 at the Sawai Ram Singh Shilp Kala Kendra financed by the All India Handicrafts Board, Kripal Singh also had a workshop for both painting and pottery at his home where he trained young School of Art graduates, kashigars (tile workers) and kumbhars in the basics of production.
Kripal Singh, born in Mau in 1922, is also known for his contribution as a painting student of Nandalal Bose at shantiniketan. Following this, Kripal Singh did a two-year diploma in Oriental Arts from the Tokyo University, Japan. He combined the Rajasthani miniature painting idiom with the Ajanta delicacy of line in nature and, besides reviving and training many younger pottery students and painters, began a new modernisation of the techniques and glaze palette in an individual stylistic development. For this he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1974 and Shilp Guru in 2002. He was also chairman of the Rajasthan Lalit Kala Akademy between 1997 and 1999, while he continued with his painting and pottery till his death in 2008. His pathbreaking revival inspired others like entrepreneur Leela Bordia, under whose artistic direction in collaboration with craftsman Giriraj Singh there was a flowering and expansion of the traditional line of products to encompass new markets through her ceramics initiative Neerja International that revitalised this craft.