For ten days in February 2016 I travelled through India 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 been three weeks since I’ve had a run and I’m desperate for it like a junkie. There’s a gentle offshore breeze blowing and the surfers are duck-diving under the foam. 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. It’s hot already.
‘Is there anything you miss?’ Sandra asks me as we make the drive to the airport.
A surfer cuts through the morning glass and I shake my head. The water is so clean. I’ve missed this daily ritual. I start running and focusing on the sea-spray forming ahead stories spill out.
I’m suddenly checking into a hotel in Old Delhi with four traveling companions. We’ve just arrived from Udaipur where we stayed on a lake in a palace that was once the home of the Maharana’s noblemen. Outside the calm of its whitewashed walls the town is manic with three wheeler autos dodging limping dogs and cows and the occasional elephant, but now I realise Udaipur is just a sleepy country town. Old Delhi is on crack.
Behind us the hotel door chimes, and a woman with silvery cropped hair and black rimmed glasses walks in off the street.
‘Sandra!’ my friend Vicki cries out.
Sandra Bowkett is our guide. She’s a Victorian potter and has been collaborating with Rajasthani potters in India and Australia for more than ten years. She’s quite tall and slight but not fragile. Her gestures are calm, and for a moment I think she is 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.
The whole group exhales. I don’t want to leave her side.
‘I’ve just been to the market,’ she says reaching into a plastic shopping bag, and without pretence she places a garland of golden fluffy marigolds around our necks. I press their softness to my face and inhale the bees wings magicking up a second wind.
Like excited kids we check out our rooms. I’m sharing a room with Evie, a smiley 20 something year old from Glenn Innes who has just graduated from The National Art School. We’re on the top floor and lug our bags up four flights of stairs. We open the bathroom door and exchange looks over our squat toilet and bucket for bathing. But it’s clean and we think it might prepare us for something worse later on.
Outside our room is 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.
In the street below, 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 their shifts on the median strip in the full afternoon glare.
We make our way 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 in Old Delhi 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 a living thing.
We stop and Sandra chats on the street to a restaurant owner baking bread in his tandoor. His restaurant is not much more than a hole in a wall and it’s packed, and we all squeeze inside.
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 ahead of us with the names of towns that sound like spices. I should write them down in my notebook but our lunch arrives, and we eat hot naan, potato and herb filled paratha, spicy pickles, and wet daal with our hands.
‘Why do you punish yourself?’
I’m jolted back to the beach.
It’s Colleen on her morning walk. She smiles and shakes her snowy head at me.
‘Nice low tide for ya Claire!’ she yells.
The hard packed sand stretches on for miles and there’s not a soul ahead. It’s so hot and I take off my singlet and wrap it around my forehead.
Back in Delhi the sweat prickles my skin and another wave of nausea hits. I bring up last night’s deep fried chicken into a Zip-Loc bag that’s travelled all the way from Tasmania. We’ve been here for a week and I’ve made it to 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.
‘Where have you been staying?’ the hotel owner demands.
‘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. Do you want the doctor?’
‘No…please just my bed.’
‘You must take something for the infection.’
‘Infection?…I think it’s just something I ate..’
I sleep all day and between retching dream of sock puppets and hallucinate about giant yellow ducks. There’s a wedding happening out on the street and a brass marching band is going hard at it, but I can’t quite pick the tune. I drag my 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 and see its 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 that 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 beneath my running shoes is a moonscape pocked with holes, and I dodge the tide as it creeps to my right. There is a beach in Bangal where there’s no gravel or sand but centuries deep with potshards. The tides rise and fall, even tsunamis come and reveal still more shards.
I swaddle the little chai cup among my clothes 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.
We’re in a small lecture hall listening to the artist Jacques Kauffman. He talks about the poetic energy and the dream that lies within our materials. I’m nodding. 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 coming out of a mist. Truth doesn’t matter he says. Feeling is all that matters.
I stop and stare out at the ocean. I’m not sure why, but I cry here some mornings. Maybe Colleen is right maybe I torture myself. A sob 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 dead surfer who keeps washing up at my feet. I kiss him hard full of my breath, but only the sea answers back. The ocean doesn’t give a fig about any of it and strangely this comforts me.
I retrace my dissolving tracks and see Ganesh watching me from the basket I’m carrying off the plane. Haripal has already disappeared into the crowd. The strangeness of our meeting on my flight home follows me for weeks and hangs about the studio like a spirit, yet I’m grateful for its company. New works emerge slowly 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 alongside them; stretching, rolling and shaping the clay, and maybe this material will give up its dreams to me.
My hair is wet with sweat and I stink something fierce. Red faced I untie my hot pink laces and kick off my shoes. The sand is damp and cool and I hear the slap of wet fabric on the holy steps as men gather in groups to scrub their clothes. I wade out into the foam and they all 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. Is there anything you miss back home? I shake my head and dive under a cresting wave.
If you’re open to unique adventure and travel that will take you out of your comfort zone, 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