For ten days in February 2016 I travelled through Delhi and Rajasthan to meet traditional Rajasthani potters with a small group of clay enthusiasts led by Australian potter Sandra Bowkett.
At the end of our tour, on the Yamana River between the Holy City Vrindavan and Delhi, Sandra asked me if I missed anything back home. Her words, and the adventure she led us on inspired the short story below.
‘Mai kumhari hu : I am a potter’ part II
It’s three weeks since I’ve run and I’m desperate for it like a junkie. There’s a gentle offshore blowing and Nat duck-dives under the foam for her early. It’s hot already. I crouch in the sand, my right leg behind me, I lift my chin to the sun and feel the stretch along my hamstring. I change legs.
‘Is there anything you miss?’ Sandra asks me.
Nat cuts through the morning glass and I shake my head. It’s so clean. I’ve missed this daily ritual.
I’ve only run 500 metres and already I’m telling myself that I can’t make it to Wooyung. So I focus on the sea-spray forming up ahead and the stories start to spill out.
I’m checking into a hotel with four companions. We’ve been sitting in traffic for hours and it’s past lunch time. I’ve been in Udaipur for the last week in a hotel on a lake that was once the home of the Maharana’s noblemen. Outside its whitewashed walls the town is manic with three wheeler autos and pedestrians dodging limping dogs and cows and the occasional elephant, but now I realise Udaipur is a sleepy country town. I’ve just arrived in Old Delhi, and it’s on crack. We hand over our passports.
The door chimes and a woman with silvery cropped hair and black rimmed glasses walks in off the street.
‘Sandra!’ Vicki cries out.
She’s quite tall and slight but not fragile. Her gestures are calm, and for a moment I think she’s Indian. She greets us with a warm smile, clasps her hands and tilts her head ‘Namaste’. She asks if we’ve eaten, and says she’ll take us to a good place that she’s discovered this week.
Sandra Bowkett is our guide. She’s a Victorian potter and has been collaborating with Rajasthani potters in India and Australia for more than 10 years.
The whole group exhales. I don’t want to leave her side.
‘I’ve just been to the market,’ she says reaching into plastic shopping bag, and without pretence she places a garland of golden fluffy marigolds around each of our necks. I press their softness to my face and inhale the bees wings. I bite my lip.
Sandra has magicked up our second wind, and like excited kids we check out our rooms. I’m sharing with Evie, a smiley 20 something from Glenn Innes who has just graduated from National Art School. We’re up three or four flights of stairs on the top floor. We open the bathroom door and exchange looks over our squat toilet and a shower slash bucket for bathing. But it’s clean and we think it might prepare us for something much worse later on. Outside our room is the hotel’s kitchen and a terrace that looks onto a red sandstone mosque called Jama Masjid, and flying around its 600 year old marble domes and minarets are thousands of pigeons believed to be the spirits of deceased relatives and friends.
Below me, hundreds of yellow canopies on wheels weave and honk their way around a river of bright blue tuk-tuks and timber carts hauled by ancient men. Across the street there are neatly made bed rolls waiting patiently for their owners in the shade of the mosque’s walls, while others snatch sleep stretched out between shifts on the median strip in the afternoon glare.
We make our way down onto the street and for a moment I’m in a Dickens novel, but his world is suddenly more genteel. The garbage collectors have been on strike for a week and the rubbish is putrid and close to knee deep. Above my head bunches of black electric cabling decorate the shop fronts like bunting for a festival, and buildings multiply and sprout from each other like something living.
We stop. Sandra is talking to a man baking in a tandoor out the front of his restaurant. It’s not much more than a hole in a wall, and it’s packed, but we squeeze into the last booth. Although it’s winter it’s hot in here and we switch on a small blue fan perched close to Evie’s head like a parrot. Sandra orders plates of ‘tali’ and sitting on an empty gas cylinder, she officially maps out the tour with the names of towns and potters that sound like spices. I should write them down in my notebook and commit them to memory, but our lunch arrives, and we eat plates of hot naan, potato and herb filled paratha, spicy pickles, and wet daal with our hands.
“Why do you punish yourself?”
It’s my neighbour Colleen. She smiles and shakes her snowy head at me.
‘Nice low tide for ya Claire!’ she yells and continues on her morning walk.
The hard packed sand stretches on for miles and there’s not a soul ahead. Nearly half way. It’s so hot and I take off my singlet and wrap it around my forehead.
Sweat prickles my skin and another wave of nausea hits. I bring up last night’s deep fried chicken into a Zip-Loc bag from Tasmania on the doorstep of our new hotel. It’s sunny and warm and there’s a garden and balcony. The streets are clean. It’s a well to do part of town. I keep throwing up as if it were a competition sport. I’ve made quite an entrance.
‘Where have you been staying?’ The hotel owner demands.
‘Oh…um…Jama Masjid.’ I wipe my mouth with the back of my shaking hand.
‘Why on earth would you go there? People go there and never come back alive. Come. I’ll show you to your room. Do you want the doctor?’
‘No…please just my bed.’
‘But you must take something for the infection.’
‘Infection?…No really, just something I ate..’
Sandip’s not convinced and he ushers me through the dining room and it’s homely and tastefully decorated. There’s a jar of Vegemite amongst the sauces and jams on the middle of the table.
In my room I fasten the warm Tasmanian Zip-Loc and stow it in the bin. I manage a smile. It’s a small world after all. I sleep all day and between retching I dream of sock puppets and hallucinate script ideas for a client shooting a video with a giant yellow duck next week in Sydney. There’s a wedding going on down the street and a brass marching band is going hard at it, but I can’t quite pick the tune. I drag my sorry bones into the bathroom in the greying afternoon and lift my singlet to finger my newly protruding hip bones and abdominal muscles. I haven’t seen them since my early twenties. There’s nothing left inside me. I rinse my mouth and think of Vegemite on toast. That’s a good sign surely.
In the morning there’s no call to prayer, or I sleep through it, my legs are shaky but I kneel in the early light and repack my bag. I pick up a crudely thrown terracotta chai cup that I’ve kept from a chai wallah. I feel its belly. I see its unknown maker squat before his wheel and pull up the wall of clay between his fingers. He slices its foot from the centred hump on the wheel head and places it on a board to dry with a thousand others he has already made that day. His wife prepares the clay among the chickens and children, and in the evening the kiln crackles and sparks into the darkness from their roof top. Each cup he makes will serve just one spicy tea at a road stall, and moments later it will be tossed and crushed beneath a million feet on the city street.
My head is bowed and the sand looks like a moonscape pocked with holes, and I dodge the tide as it creeps to my right. A professor of Indian art tells us about a beach in Bangal where there’s no gravel or sand but is centuries deep with potshards. The tides rise and fall and even tsunamis come and reveal still more shards. Sandra and I look at each other wide-eyed. I swaddle the little cup among my clothes and the cooking pots I’ve bought from a potter we visit in Deli. His enormous blackened kiln towers above me. My neighbour likes to call the council whenever I fire my kiln, I’d like her to check this one out for size.
I smell toast and zip my bag. Delhi has been like a family reunion, and today we leave for Rajasthan to meet more cousins.
‘What did he say?’ Vicki whispers behind me.
‘Poetical Energy’ I whisper.
He apologises again for his English. We shake our heads. I don’t want him to ever stop speaking. It’s the ceramic artist Jacques Kauffman. He speaks about the poetic energy and the dream that lies within our materials. I’m nodding. His lecture is so profound I want to yell. I can feel the towers of red matka pots, mountains of chai cups, centuries of shards, even the cow dung moves me. It’s like I’m coming out of a mist. Truth doesn’t matter. Feeling matters. Christ, I’m having an epiphany, and I sense whatever I make from now on has already been conceived in this room.
I’ve reached Wooyung and I stop and stare out at the ocean. I’m not sure why, but I cry here some mornings. Maybe Colleen is right. It crowns in my throat and I cry for the family living on the traffic island, I cry for the kids in the school room that smells like shit, I cry for the tiny girl with black kohled eyes begging me to buy her dessert and I don’t, I cry for my dead Dad, I cry for the surfer who keeps washing up at my feet. I kiss him hard full of my breath, but only the sea answers back. I cry for my sins. The ocean doesn’t give a fig and strangely this comforts me.
I retrace my dissolving tracks and Ganesh considers me from my carry-on, I look up and Haripal the potter turned engineer has disappeared. The strangeness of our meeting follows me for weeks and hangs about the studio like a spirit, yet I’m grateful for the company. New works are slowly emerging although it’s like looking into a steamy mirror, and I’m worried I might frighten the ideas away if I look at them too hard. So I work quietly alongside them; stretching, rolling and shaping the clay, and maybe this material will give up its dreams to me.
I’m sprinting now along the eastern edge of the continent and the rising sun beats up my left arm. Nat bobs out the back waiting for another set. The morning walkers are approaching, so I unwind my green make-shift turban from my forehead and cover my body. We wave as we pass each other.
My hair is wet through with sweat, lactic acid is eating up my legs, and I stink something fierce. Red faced, lungs burning, I bend and untie my hot pink laces and kick off my shoes and socks. The sand is damp and cool and I hear the slap of wet fabric on the holy steps at the waters edge and the men gather to scrub their clothes. I wade out into the foam and they disappear silently beneath the surface.
I’m on a small bus leaving the holy city of Vrindavan on the Yamana River. There’s a gentle offshore blowing. My newly adopted brother is somewhere across the sea on an oil rig. Sandra turns to me. A heavily pregnant woman swims close by naked. I want to give her some space but there’s a strong rip. It’s so clean. I shake my head. Is there anything you miss? We dive under the cresting wave. So clean.
If you’re interested in pottery and potters, and you’re open to unique adventure and travel that sometimes takes you out of your comfort zone, then I encourage you to travel with Sandra Bowkett in February 2017. Contact Sandra and read about her tours and ongoing collaborations with Rajasthani potters through Crosshatched 123 here
You can also see the wonderful potters of Kumhaargram in this Youtube made by Sandra here