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.