In December 1973 I landed in Delhi at the start of a 3-year assignment with the World Bank’s Resident Mission in India. On the first week-end, one of my new colleagues and his girl friend, Mary, took my wife and me out for a stroll and in the course of our conversation I learned that Mary was taking pottery lessons from an Indian master potter by the name of Nirmala Patwardhan. Even though I knew that my work was going to keep me rather busy and I had never made anything out of clay, the idea of learning pottery immediately resonated with me and I asked Mary to introduce me to her teacher. Fortunately, Nirmala kindly agreed to meet with my wife, Carolyn, and me and to take us on as her students. After two or three lessons, Carolyn decided that pottery wasn’t her thing, so I continued on my own, together with Mary and Nirmala’s Indian students.
On Saturday mornings I would ride my bike from our house at 168 Jorbagh to Nirmala’s studio at C-31 Greenpark. I shudder at the idea of doing it now with all the traffic and the air pollution in Delhi, but in those days it was quite feasible– we could even cycle from our home all the way to the Qutub Minar and back without taking our life into our hands! Nirmala’s studio was on the ground floor and equipped with a couple of kick wheels where Nirmala promptly introduced me to the art of throwing. It all looked quite magical: starting from a formless lump of clay, she was able to produce a cup, a bowl or a vase in a record time. In spite of the cold weather and the damp atmosphere, I was hooked and, by the end of the first lesson, I had managed to center a small ball of clay and to fashion it into a small 2-inch cup. Centering the clay on a kickwheel didn’t come easily and there were many failures in the course of each lesson and over the years that followed. Another challenge that proved similarly difficult was wedging the clay into a conic shape so as to get rid of ever-present and annoying air bubbles; it seemed so effortless when Nirmala was doing it, but it took me a couple of years to get the hang of it.
While teaching me how to throw pots and to trim them once they had slowly dried, Nirmala gifted me a few pottery tools, including a trimming tool she had brought back from her stay at Bernard Leach’s pottery studio in Saint Ives, England. I still keep it in my tool box and it reminds me of her whenever I use it. When I felt that it would help to have my own pottery wheel to practice at home in-between lessons, she took out the drawings of Bernard Leach’s treadle wheel, and we went in search of a carpenter and an ironsmith to build a beautiful wheel in solid teak. I used it whenever I had a moment to myself in Delhi, and re-assembled it upon our return to the US, where it adorns my basement in Washington, DC. Having gotten spoiled by having access to electric pottery wheels which are a lot easier to operate, these days I only use the Leach wheel very occasionally but it attracts a lot of attention from visitors to my annual home pottery shows
A startling feature of NIrmala’s studio was that the walls were covered with strings upon strings holding glaze test rings, each with a notation at the bottom of it to identify the particular glaze that had been tested on it. I quickly found out that one of Nirmala’s passions was to make and test glazes. She made glaze tests for different clay bodies ranging from earthenware to stoneware and porcelain, as well as slips, underglazes and stains, covering all the colors in the rainbow and all the varieties of textures from matte to shiny, from smooth to rough and crackled. This had been one of her main area of interest at Bernard Leach’s studio in England and, after coming back to India, she systematically set out to adjust the glaze formulae to whatever materials were available locally in India. In addition to testing individual glazes, she experimented with many variations of glaze overlaps, which often turned up interesting and unexpected results.
Not having inherited her passion for glaze making and testing, I’m totally in awe of the prodigious amount of work that she put into it, which resulted in the publication of the Handbook for Potters in 1984, and was followed by the publication of an expanded and updated volume called New Handbook for Potters in 2005. The latter includes a goldmine of information on materials used, tips and suggestions. It clearly met a need among Indian potters and, as Anand informs me, the volume ran out of print in no time, and potters had to rely of purloined xerox copies of the book.
For firing her pieces, Nirmala had access to an electric kiln and a raku kiln and, at one point we imported a gas kiln lined with fiber glass which allowed her to control the amount of reduction in the kiln atmosphere. The problem was that she didn’t have access to a gas line and had to rely on gas cylinders for the firings. Since the number of gas cylinders per household was rationed, that created a problem when she ran out of gas before the firing was over.
Nirmala’s pieces were mostly functional in nature, ranging from plates to bowls, to platters, to mugs, to cups and saucers, to coffee pots and teapots, covered jars, flasks, vases of all sizes and more. Her work shows an uncanny combination of simplicity, grace, utility, vitality, spontaneity and sincerity. Carolyn and I feel fortunate to have several of Nirmala’s pots in our possession, some of which we use very often like the sturdy beer mugs in our kitchen, the cereal bowl with swirls in our dining room and the graceful flower vase in our living room. They certainly fall in Bernard Leach’s definition of what makes a good pot: “The upshot of the argument is that a pot in order to be good should be a genuine expression of life. It implies sincerity on the part of the potter and truth in the conception and execution of the work” (quote from A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach, 1973, p.20).
Nirmala’s voice still rings in my mind when I’m deciding what kind of pots I should be making on a particular day, what kind of shape, lip or handle I should fashion on my mugs–they never stray far from Nirmala’s and they remain popular among my customers, or what kind of glaze and decoration I should use to bring out the essence of the pot–it should stay simple, be spontaneous and be in harmony with the overall design. These enduring lessons I owe to Nirmala and through her to Bernard Leach and the Japanese potters they both admired. I’m eternally grateful to her for having launched me on a path that has provided me with a lot of challenges and much satisfaction, one that continues to inspire the pottery I’m making today.
January 29, 2020