A Critical Enquiry into the Notion of Panchabhutas Through Ceramic-sculptures
Exhibition review of ‘Elements in Mythology’ at Gallery Ark
Written by Pronoy Chakraborty, January 6, 2020
From the ‘shared beginnings’ of ‘our human history’ (P.Ahuja, 2017), ceramics has played a quintessential role in shaping aesthetics, bringing forth design interventions for the sake of utility, ritualistic rites, food habits and ornamentation. Pottery has travelled the entire course of human history, right from pre-historic lithic cultures as early as 20,000 BCE to the agrarian proto-historic and early historic cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, China, Japan, Greece and Rome, through the medieval times to the age of Industrial Revolution and beyond. With time, it assumed different forms and functions in resonance with the locale and the temporal context, while simultaneously embodying the ‘elements in mythology’, which in turn become archival cues for the studio-pottery artists, whose works are being celebrated through this show at Gallery Ark.
This essay intends to look at ceramics as an utmost important aesthetic and artistic medium of expression, from the vantage point of Indian philosophy and aesthetics, rooted in the notion of the Panchabhutas or the Five Elements, namely- Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether. The primary material of ceramics, coming from the Greek work ‘keramikos’ (meaning ‘for/of pottery’) is clay, which comes in varieties, possessing different chemical properties. Clay, invariably being composed of earth or Prithvi and water or Apas gets heated in fire or Agni at different ranges of temperature giving rise to low-fired porous earthenware to high-fired stoneware to the most durable porcelain modelled from highly refined clay and fired at a very high temperature of approximately 1,200-1450 degrees Celsius. This admixture of the two material bhutas or elements with the agency of the third- Agni, couples with the immaterial elements of Vayu (air) and Akasha (ether) in the various chemical reactions as a result of the chemical properties of the primary material element of clay. This technology of making a ceramic vessel was one of the first and foremost steps in the history of human civilization, following the discovery of fire (the significant agent here) and finds a close analogy in the conception of the Five Dharanas1 in the Upanishadic scriptures like the Yoga-Tattva or the Taittiriya Upanishads.
The metaphysical contemplation in the Sanskrit treatises in the form of conversations between divine seers intellectualize the five elements as the major constituents that an adept has to master in order to vitalize the life-force or Prana in different stages, corresponding to different body parts from the tip of the foot to the crown of the head. Just like the stone tools were indicators of major shifts in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic ages, times of a hunter-gather existence, the ceramic vessel became an important marker to the transition to human settlements with beginning of agriculture, breeding of domestic animals and most importantly the discovery of the potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE, about 300 years before they were used in chariots for territorial wars. The vessel revealed man’s ability to control fires, build kilns, find and prepare clay (P.Ahuja, 2017), thereby enabling the artist’s creative expression in a variety of ways: from modelling to knowledge about pigments, allowing the possibilities of painting over the pottery or of different techniques of glazing. Be it the growing mastery and sophistication in the ceramic techniques or in the Upanishadic discourses of mastering the five gross and subtle elements, the vessel became the container of myriad myths, beliefs and stigmas. The predominant swollen shape of the jar, the amphora, the goblet etc. from several early agrarian cultures across the globe, also leads to a correlation of the formal contour with the notion of fertility and reproductivity and a refined utilitarian evolution in design from the swollen reproductive parts of primitive female figurines or mother goddesses. The vessel or the Ghaṭa in Sanskrit was much like the womb of Prakriti, the feminine Principle, later theorized as Shakti, without which Shiva, the Supreme Purusha is nothing but dormant Shava (like a corpse). It is based on this premise of duality and symmetry, inherent in the structural anatomy of the vessel, that one can read Reyaz Badaruddin’s conceptual Still-life 3.3, where he formally plays with the traditional shape but with a post-structuralist subversive edge to it, which makes the forms suggestive of new interpretations. (Banner Image)
‘Studio pottery’ or the practice in which artists working alone or in small groups make unique items in typically small runs, emerged as an elevated art-form in the early twentieth century due to the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Bauhaus, both of which tried to integrate design and craft with modernist art practice. In the post-independent Indian context, the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU Baroda became an important center for the flourishing of this practice, led by pioneering women like Ira Chowdhury and Jyotsna Bhatt, who despite their advancing years continue to be visionary leaders in conception and production and are together an integral part of this exhibition. Ira Chowdhury, the senior-most amongst the artists uses the s-graffito technique to inscribe her imaginary ‘Iramese script’ and refers back to the moment in history when the earliest decipherable cuneiform script was being invented (Images 2 and 3). The mischievous smug on the stoneware Cats of Jyotsna Bhatt, titled Living Chariots of the Gods, reminds one of the Egyptian tomb sculptures of the cat-goddess Bast, its original totemic value translated to contemporary playfulness. (Image 4 and 5) The iconicity of the ‘Iramese script’ or Jyotsna’s Cats thrives on the ‘elements in mythology’ that constitute the unfolding of human history.
Vinod Daroz, a sculptor trained under the likes of Jytosna Bhatt has done rich textural explorations, while building on forms inspired by the abstract vocabulary of Tantric artistic traditions: for example, the Hiranyagarbha or the Golden Cosmic Egg from which all creation came forth, mentioned in the Rig-Veda as well as the Matsya-Purana. The metaphysical specificity of the concept is however overwritten by Vinod’s skillful play in porcelain with decals and liquid gold to create arabesque of floral designs, after the blue-pottery of Jaipur (Image 6). The conscious repetition of the forms is akin to constant chanting of the Bīja-Mantra or the Root-syllable that also codify each of the five elements with specific colours and shapes. For Prithvi– the Bīja Mantra is Lam, enclosed in a yellow quadrilateral, for Apas– Vam in a white crescent form, for Agni– Ram in triangular red form, for Vayu– Yam in a pair of black isosceles triangles with one apex pointing up and the other below and for Akasha– Ham in a smoky circular form. The esoteric iconography and symbolism are appropriated and, in a way, profaned by the juxtaposition of ceramic and digital printing and acrylic paints in the works of Vineet Kacker. Vineet’s Myth-Mandalas: ode to the five elements are in an effort to formally manifest his artistic quest for twining spirituality and art-historical archives, especially references from Indian miniatures and Tibetan Buddhist thangkas (Image 7). The ritualistic meaning of the images however is displaced in the white-cube gallery space and it is the artist’s personal calling towards the forms, the myths and the underlying esoteric philosophical undercurrents that revitalizes the traditional abstract symbols, mantras and iconography in the contemporary spatial-temporal context. The hybrid syncretism that Vineet achieves in his works are telling of the potential of the ceramic medium, enabled by the technological advancements and the easy access to archives in a digitally globalized world. Likewise, the globe and the map, being crucial markers of colonialist ambition have been personalized by Madhvi Subramanian. Her Mappa-Mundi series builds on the trope of the map, trying to look closely at the cities of Singapore and Mumbai, where the artist inhabits alternatively. Through an engaged act of marking her traversed route in these two cosmopolitan cities, she abstracts the lived memories of these spaces into thin linings of fine gold, borrowing from the Japanese technique of Kintsugi. (Image 8)
To conclude with, the Vedic and Brahmanical treatises strongly argue that all organic life return to the primordial five elements, aptly crystallized in the Bengali phrase- ‘Panchabhute bilina’. The paradoxical binaries of life and death, of growth and decomposition are critically touched on by Savia Mahajan, who combines porcelain with organic materials like paper, fibers, bone and wood ashes, glazed and stained in parts. The highly textured sculptural pieces, in a post-modernist manner show the ominous possibility of a grim future where nothing but the traces of human civilizations shall remain. (Image 9)
1. Dharana coming from the root dhri (to hold back) in Patanjali’s Ashṭanga-Yoga technically means concentration by retention of the elements. The Yoga-Tattva Upanishad, part of the Kriṣhṇa-Yajurveda talks about the dharanas in relation to the five elements, codifying the colour and seed-syllable for each.
Pronoy Chakraborty is a recent post-graduate from the department of Art History and Aesthetics at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. His academic concern covers the wider spectrum of Indian philosophy including Buddhism, Shaivism, Sufism and related ritualistic practices, with particular focus on Tantric Buddhism and Bāul-Music: documentation and anthropological study of this tradition, and its inherent symbolism. As a practicing artist as well, his work is largely informed by these art-historical investigations that in turn, stems from a personal calling towards the occult.
Pronoy was a participant in the 4th Middle Bangla Retreat in Morocco, organized by the Department of South Asian Languages, as a session-leader and has presented in many national seminars on art history and translation studies. He had curated a show titled Archival Dialogues for Priyasri Art Gallery, Mumbai, working with his peers at the Faculty, whose work tangentially touch upon the trope of colonial archives. He is in the process of illustrating and translating Tantric Buddhist dohās and caryās of Kāṇhupa (with the first book soon to be published), as well in writing a catalogue for the Saptasajya Festival 2019 where contemporary designers and artists collaborated with traditional metal artists of Odisha.