Stacks In Balance the full story

 A Crosshatched  project in India commissioned by  Australia –India Council ( AIC) to celebrate it’s 20th Anniversary  and to be included in the Exhibition KINDNESS/UDARTA, curated by Suzanne Davies and Dr Alka Pande at the Visual Art Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.  

 The Crosshatched Artists, India 2012:  Ann Ferguson, Sandra Bowkett. Bhuvnesh Kumar,  Dharmveer and Rajesh Kumari,  Kalu Ram and Family, Kajor Ram, Manohar Lal and Family, Mantu Chittrakar,  Pradyumna Kumar  Pushpa Kumari;  Interpreter Vineeta Singh and with assistance from Minhazz Majumdar.

 In Hindi Kindness is expressed in many different ways. Ann and I briefly discussed would we address the title of the exhibition. Considering the many challenges  perceived to be ahead, including a spoken language barrier and time limitations so we put this aside, however, it was the generosity, trust and patience, and more, of the participants that brought this project to a successful outcome. Kindness in its many permutations is embodied in the work.

This project has been a most rewarding undertaking, implicit in that are challenges. Here is the story of the making of Stacks in Balance.

The plan was to utilise traditional pottery techniques used to create forms that we and others would decorate to create a series of related forms that would be threaded onto a vertical steel rod. Ann and I along with Manohar Lal ( Manori)  Dharmveer and my local community had completed Tallarook Stacks in Australia early 2011,  structurally we were confident we could readily do something similar here.

Who was to be involved? The intention was to include Indian artists and artisans that had participated in other Crosshatched projects where the financial assistance had came from the AIC.

Gathering the artists. Although the activity was centred in Kumhaargram ( formally known as Hastal Village) on the outskirts of New Delhi some of us had travelled long distances to participate including Mantu who travelled from West Bengal . He, Pradyumna, Pushpa  ( Crosshatched 2009) Ann  and myself met at Uttam Nagar Metro station to travel by rickshaw to  the Prasad’s workshop for the first official day of the project. A few days earlier Bhuvnesh Kumar ( Australia 2005)  had made several large forms we were to ‘decorate’ by carving and impressing into the burnished surface. They were beautiful objects in themselves, how could we enhance them? We approached the task in different ways. Mantu, Pradyumna and Pushpa transposing their lyrical graphic images onto the vessels, including the meeting at the metro station that morning and some imagery that grew from their experiences in Australia; Ann, motifs drawn from connections between closed shapes or first circles inspired by her work with very young children and myself, relishing the opportunity to reflect on, the ground from the air, in particular the mark of water on our dry continents on a large form. We found ourselves readily settling to working quietly and comfortably in the light filled small courtyard at the Prasad workshop. Our weeks together in Australia during Crosshatched 2009 paving the way for this level of familiarity.

Deciding who would participate in a potter’s colony of approximately 700 families was not so easy. Manori was the only potter that fitted the stated criteria but we wanted to extend the reach of the project to include a manageable ‘few others’. It took a few days to negotiate our way to a workable team.  The other form makers, Kajor Ram, thrown forms, and Kalu Ram and family, die makers were all in close proximity to where we had established a workspace on Manori’s rooftop which made the logistics of moving pots around feasible. Over two days Manori had built a roof structure where we could have a shaded workspace, this was most appreciated.

Most of the forms used were derivations of the waterpot. After much discussion and some misunderstandings we established what we wanted to do with Kalu Ram we enjoyed the process of creating the two parts  for a waterpot made by  moulds. The process was; he threw thick forms that at the nearly dry stage we caved our designs. There is a top and bottom mould. These are then fired.  The family then, deftly, by hand, beat clay into the bottom mould, the top mould and then joined the two together. Usually a large neck is then thrown onto this form, however we required the top just to have an opening. The size being determined by the usual dimension of a thrown waterpot so when stacked they sat neatly. Time was against Kalu Ram, as the process was lengthy  as the thick clay for the moulds  had to dry, and they were the first of a two stage process, we were anxious that all would be achieved in the short time available. However, despite regular power outages, a wedding and a baby boy celebration we had a series of ‘our waterpots’ to work on in the nick of time. We also got the family to make some waterpots using their own moulded designs to include in the stacks.

Kajor Ram  threw a series of shapes not achievable by usual waterpot making techniques, i.e  larger elongated forms.

Manori made thrown and beaten waterpots on demand and from the women of the family Anju, Puja and Karlo Devi  some forms using the moulds they have for making big round money boxes.

It was exciting for Ann and I to have many large forms to work on.  We painted, pressed, carved, rubbed and sponged back, repainted and all possibilities in between. Ann had bought some earth colours from Australia however because of time constraints and the need to test these we generally stayed with local colours.  As informal opportunities arose others were engaged in this decorative process.

Ann had some ideas for decorative techniques developed since the work on the Tallarook stacks. These included “multiple piercing of the forms to create transparencies as well as joining a tracery of connecting pieces onto the surface. For several days I struggled to follow through with these complex ideas with increasing frustration. Constraints arising from differences in the clay body, quick drying in the outside workspace and the need to produce a large number of decorated forms in a very short time meant that the work needed to be made quickly and confidently. The beautiful beaten mudka forms clearly stood out showing the necessity to desist from over decorating. The solution - a quick application of traditional surface colour around a series of circles and deft inscriptions of connecting lines”.

 We then had to consider how to make the structure that would support the pieces. Ann had used plough discs in the past. Hindi name for plough disc? Opportunistically I had taken a photo of a plough on a trip out of Delhi. Plough discs were not locally available. We then played with a few available props to construct a likely model and a local metal smith was called in to appraise our efforts, not possible with his equipment. Manori then suggested, he could caste bases out of concrete, easy idea.

It was then to the plumbing supply shop for pipe. Long lengths were pulled from their storage into the roadway, the proprietor used to making sure the frequent traffic wasn’t ‘inconvenienced’ by the pipe in the road airspace. We then had our pipes and larger metal sleeves that would be cast in the concrete.  A few days later carrying all the materials up to our workspace the 3 bases were made.  

The next anxiety was the fire, would the pieces survive this trial? Generally yes, some pieces show evidence of the tumble stacked kiln and a few cracks.   We were most excited and a bit surprised to see such a collection of wonderful pieces gathered in our workspace, we had more than enough pieces to comfortably make our choices for the 3 stacks, in fact we would have liked to include more pieces than would ‘fit’.

We had a rooftop trial setup, firstly selecting and sorting the pieces on the ground.  It was a precarious undertaking, threading the pieces, some very heavy on the pipe with the aid of a rickety bamboo ladder, we wanted to minimize time up the ladder. Jugdish and several other helpers made this task run smoothly. Once again we were surprised and delighted with the stacks, the coming together of disparate works as a whole was a very satisfying creative outcome. All travelling pieces were then bubble wrapped ready to go in the tempo ( small 3 wheel carrier) for the trip to the Visual Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre (IHC).

The installation with the help once again of Jugdish and tempo drive Mahavir, with the aid of the galleries’ steel ladder, went smoothly. The work defined in the gallery space took on a new vibrant life, the range of colours from velvety blacks, earthy browns to reds and stark whites, the embossed motives and carved images contributing to a major work with a strong sense of presence and integrity.

There had been much discussion in Kumhaargram about attending the opening and invitations were extended to all who had been involved with a special effort to get the women there. Two cars were to be used and the plan was for these to leave at 4 to insure arrival at 6  for the one hour drive, one car had a flat tyre, they arrived after 7, conveniently  all the speeches in English were over and the music  had began. Their entrance didn’t go unnoticed with the women in their very colourful saris and general settling sounds in an unfamiliar environment, Ann and I could now relax happy that they had arrived including the women.  We all proudly gathered around the Stacks for a group shot, it was then that we were really able to celebrate the accomplishment of  ‘Stacks in Balance’ and, then it was time for the trip home for them.

 Ann and I consider this work a significant achievement. Working with the Crosshatched Team and combing their work in a cohesive whole has been a most enriching experience.

Crosshatched  India 2012 would like to thank the AIC for funding the project. (Artisan fees, Ann’s travel expenses and installation costs). I have participated as part of my Asialink Residency funded by AIC and Arts Victoria and hosted by South Asia Foundation.

Sandra Bowkett India April 2012