Padma Rajagopal Tribute
Padma's Writing: Various
(to be published in Ceramic Review, England)
If you've ever travelled long-distance by road in Tamil Nadu, you would have noticed little shrines at the outskirts of towns and villages, surrounded by weather-beaten terracotta figures of horses, demon-like figures with raised swords in their hands, and bearded sages in meditation. Sometimes these are huge figures made of several pottery elements joined together with rope, or more usually, cemented together. These are temples to Ayyanar, the guardian of the village, and protector of travellers.
The next time you see one of these, try to stop and take a good look. It's a dying art, and one that requires a high degree of skill in the potter's art. Around the same shrine, the newer sculptures you see may be in cement, and in a completely different style, aiming at realism and just ending up looking very ordinary.
With all the dramatic and massive sculptures around, you'd expect the sanctum sanctorum itself to be something really special, but it's generally just a dingy little room, walled and roofed with slabs of grimy stone, and the idol itself another piece of nondescript stone! But that's because Ayyanar is identified with Shiva, who manifests Himself in the form of naturally occurring lingas, generally stones that behave unnaturally, by changing shape with the passage of time, or bleeding when touched with a sharp tool or weapon. If there are other shrines nearby, they may have man-made icons inside, perhaps Pillayar (the child), who is the elephant-headed Ganapathi, every Indian sculptor's favourite God. The other notable thing about these temples is that they have no full time priests or caretakers, and generally, it's one of the senior potter-sculptors who officiates at the annual or seasonal ceremonies. Apart from the large figures of the demonic Karuppan, guardian of the Ayyanar temple, with his upraised sword, the peaceful "maharshis", and the various large animal figures, you may also see many small statues, of people, horses, cattle, etc. These are thanksgiving offerings made by devotees who've had prayers answered for cures from sickness for family members, or for their livestock. The potter gets paid a pittance to make them, but his prestige, as a successful intermediary with divinity, is enhanced.
Like everybody else who's travelled in Tamil Nadu by road, I'd noticed these shrines but never actually been very interested in them, until I went to study Ceramic Design at the National Institute of Design, in Ahmedabad. Here, to my surprise, I met some foreign ceramists who had come to India particularly to see these sculptures! Then I began to think of these shrines with more curiosity, but little more understanding than before.
In 1993, I was commissioned by the Madras Craft Foundation to do some work in documenting a workshop they were conducting, of Ayyanar pottery. And what I saw there was absolutely breathtaking! These huge sculptures were built up spontaneously, entirely by hand. No scaled down models, sketches, moulds or armatures of any kind were used. There were sculptors from different parts of Tamil Nadu at this workshop, which was being conducted by Pondicherry - based Ray Meeker, an American architect and potter, and Hans Kaushik, a sculptor from Madras. The potters made all kinds of sculptures of the mythical figures associated with the Ayyanar temples, as well as large grain container pots, chicken-coops, etc.: forms that their ancestors before them had made from time immemorial. They also built their traditional kilns to fire these sculptures in. I was entranced, and busy making notes and sketches of them as they worked, and taking photographs. The workshop was held at the farm of Deborah Thiagarajan, a trustee of MCF, and the whole group stayed at the farmhouse for many weeks. At night, after dinner, the potters would build a campfire and sing their traditional folk songs. Sadly, I could only stay for about a fortnight, and I was very sorry to leave this creative and vibrant scene behind. But I took addresses with me, and planned to correspond with the potters and interact with them again, somehow.
My chance came again the next year, when I took up a job with a Bangalore based NGO, "Mrichakatika", working to give communities of traditional potters in various parts of Karnataka new inputs of design, technology and marketing. At Narayanpura, near Bangalore, I taught a group of village potters - men, women and children - how to make large sculpted clay animal forms, using the coiling and beating techniques I had seen the Ayyanar potters using. We made various creatures like dinosaurs, and also mythical ones, and figures of Hindu deities riding on their various steeds - Ganapathy on a rat, Chamundeshwari on a tiger. The sculptures were very crude in comparison with the expertly made figures sculpted by the Ayyanar potters, and none of them were taller than 4 feet, but they were an attractive and impressive sight nevertheless. Later on, I conducted a similar workshop at Madikebeedu near Mayamudi in Kodagu district of Karnataka, and this time, managed to get two of the Ayyanar potters invited to participate as resource persons. Before they returned home to Pudukottai, these two, Manickam and Palanisami, stayed at my home, on a small farm near Mysore for a couple of days, and made a beautiful 4 foot tall statue of Ganesha that now has its own little shrine near the entrance to the farm.
These two potters returned once again to be my guests after another year, and this second time, made a number of beautiful statues that now stand sentinel in my garden, after being fired in a country kiln built for the purpose. I have learned their techniques of sculpting, but not their formal approach or aesthetic style - that would take a number of years of working together to learn. But the exposure I've had, however brief, has given me the kind of appreciation of this art form that means that I'll never pass by an Ayyanar temple casually again. I will always try to find the time to stop, and look around with the greatest respect at works of art that won't come again - the skills are almost gone now. And I won't forget to leave some flowers at the shrine, on behalf of generations of forgotten craftsmen who have left the mark of their devotion in this fragile yet everlasting medium of baked earth, the oldest craft known to humankind.
Padma Rajagopal, June 2000.
The author is a Mysore based organic farmer and potter and a founder of the SEED (Skills and Environmental Education) Trust, working to promote sustainable rural development in South India. She has also worked as a student-assistant with British potter Alan Caiger-Smith at Aldermaston Pottery near Reading, Berkshire, in 1990. Information about the Trust's activities and eco-friendly holidays can be obtained at their website: www.nice2people.com/organizations/seed-trust.htm.