A life in the day
IRA CHAUDHURI is a studio potter and ceramic artist who now lives in Delhi. She grew up in Tagore’s Visva Bharati, Santiniketan in West Bengal, where she studied art. She moved to Vadodara, then known as Baroda, in 1951 with her husband, the world-renowned sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri. At the newly founded Faculty of Fine Arts, she spent her time learning pottery in a tiny annex of the Sculpture Department. Thus began a prolific career marked by numerous exhibitions and a transformative impact on Indian pottery, as well as a stint heading the pottery courses at the very same Sculpture Department where she began. Even today, at 93, her zest for life is unmatched. Here she speaks with ANANYA PATEL.
Q: To know Ira Chaudhuri is to know a true force of nature. Her vivacity is barely contained within her eclectically-dressed, interestingly-accessorized self, driven by an inventive mind and an intuition that searches out the beauty in everything around, underlined by her quintessential good humor and sharp wit. I had the good fortune of spending time alongside Iraba (“Granny Ira,” as I have always known her) at the Ceramic Center in Vadodara during the holidays, where even a few minutes in her company meant learning something new. Always aware and compelled by her presence on the other side of the room, I asked her the customary, “How did you get into ceramics?” Considering the course her career has taken, as is often the case with Iraba, her answer was quite unexpected.
IC: I cannot claim that I was always fascinated by pottery. I was not. I trained to be a painter only to realize that I was not going to be one. When I married Sankho Chaudhuri and went to live in Baroda in 1951, I had no clue about pottery nor was I particularly interested.
Q: Despite this, she persisted in learning how to center a lump of clay on her own, which the teacher Punabhai deemed “not quite the thing for ladies,” and her curiosity led her to explore the possibilities of these new circumstances even beyond the walls of their little facility.
IC: When I got a small quantity of oxides from the very sympathetic chemistry professor, and mixed them with clay and water and invited people to paint, many joined the fun. Punabhai kept warning us that dyes disappear in firing. We assured him that these would not, but he kept smirking behind his considerable moustache. He anyway thought we were all crazy, and to our great joy the decoration in chalky hues stayed!
Q: Iraba describes becoming somewhat addicted to pottery, always returning to it in between raising her children and running her home.
IC: I missed not doing it and I still do.
Q: Her experimental approach and her self-administered lessons in ceramic chemistry have led to all kinds of serendipitous results at the Ceramic Center. When she works, jars of carefully concocted glazes rise around her, among tools of every size and kind. She picks them up instinctively, and takes them to a vessel spinning gently on an electric wheel, using a steady hand to paint bold strokes or carve grooves into leather hard clay.
Iraba is known to get lost in this process all day, and often needs a stern reminder to take an afternoon rest. Even during these siestas, she has visions of her pots swirling over her head, and upon waking she often changes the shape of a pot she was already working on, or starts carving a relief on a platter.
The time of firing is also never a straightforward affair. She has always found ways to use the kiln as an oven, sticking some vegetables in or a chicken to roast, so that when the kiln finally opens she throws a feast in celebration. Iraba’s cooking prowess isn’t contained to her kiln and her kitchen – wandering outside on a walk, she stops and points to the plants, listing all their uses, conjuring a whole recipe on the spot. She brings a great deal of life and energy to every space she works in, and the Ceramic Center has always been transformed each time she visits, especially when reunited with her close friend and “daughter” Jyotsna Bhatt, another phenomenal ceramicist and educator, who was a pillar of the Center for decades. Sadly, Jyotsnaben passed away a few months ago, and it has been an incredible loss for Iraba, and for all who knew her. She left an indelible mark on the art community. The Center hasn’t been the same without her.
IC: Utility is a very good raison d’être and its parameters are good for discipline in work. It also reaches out to the non-art-buying public. I feel happier if people want to use a pot rather put it in a showcase.
Q: Through her practice and teaching, Iraba has advocated for studio pottery to be recognized as an art form, just as respected as sculpture or painting. She has a lot to say about the value a good, handmade pot can bring to your life, which is enhanced when the pot is touched and used. Her functional forms become blank canvases to adorn with intricate graphic work, using signature styles and techniques that she is known for, drawing inspiration from folk and tribal communities. Her most unique, however, is the invention of her own script “Iramese.”
IC: At some point, I wanted to use writing as a decorative motif and I found that most people wanted to see what I had written more than the pot! So, I decided to make the writing look like a script, sometimes even like a particular script, but it is not actually any script. And when anyone asks what script it is, I say Iramese with a very straight face.
Q: Just like her pots, Iraba herself is a vessel of creativity and curiosity, and her sense of humor is exuded in each piece she so lovingly crafts. A life in the day of Iraba consists of inventing her own language, cooking meals in her kiln, and drawing on newspaper while waiting for the kiln to open, to then make gift bags for her friends. She is one of the only people I know who could stumble upon a something for which she has such little interest and proceed to drive it forward with passion until she pushes the boundaries of its possibilities. In response to her achievements, she most humbly replies:
IC: Whenever I am asked to make a short personal statement, my stock answer is “I pot, because it bothers me not to. Since I take my work seriously, I do not take myself seriously, and no one else does.”
Q: Considering her world renown, and the respect her students, peers and community hold for her, that very last bit is far from true, and we relish the gamut of beautiful objects, knowledge and enthusiasm that sprout from her passionate potting. Today, she still stands by the words she said years ago:
IC: All stories have an ending. I am still alive and kicking the wheel, which is the happiest ending I can think of.
Interviewed by ANANYA PATEL
November 30, 2020
November 30, 2020
November 30, 2020