In modern times, Australians are more drawn to new technologies than heritage craft traditions. Inevitably though, there are still people who are born with an enduring impulse to make objects of beauty with their hands. Sandra Bowkett is one of those people. Given relative lack of recognition for traditional crafts in her home country, she must look elsewhere for a context that makes sense of her passion. Her path shows how India can provide a way of sustaining Australian craft. Through India, Australians can find the missing link between modernity and ancient traditions.
Sandra Bowkett grew up in Wakool, southern New South Wales, in a family constantly busy with domestic crafts. Her art teacher introduced her to pottery, which she continued studying at Caulfield Tech. But here her path divided. There were two schools of ceramics—the authentic Japanese tradition and the more extrovert Western use of decals. While she became a ceramicist notable for her decorative style, she would retain a sense of function at the true vocation of a potter.
Sandra’s early career involved juggling the need to make a livelihood with the quest to find a cultural context. She started working in a pottery in Healesville, a village on the outskirts of Melbourne, but she couldn’t bear the drudgery of a large scale operation. She preferred the variety of making work on her own. She began travelling in 1978, when she discovered a taste for the ‘arid regions’ in Spain and Morocco.
Faced with the challenge of making a life as a potter in Australia, she completed a Diploma of Education. Now with teaching to fall back on, she took leave in 1984 to travel Europe and the Middle East. She was entranced particularly by Turkish kilims and carpets. On her return back to Melbourne she replaced teaching with production, finding a studio in Melbourne where she could make pottery.
Sandra finally found a ‘home’ in 1988. She’d longed to go to India and the opportunity came up to work on the archaeological site Vijayanagar, in Hampi, Karnataka. Sandra used the trip to explore Rajasthan, where she came across a scene that she was forever to move her. There in the corner of a yard was a huge pile of spherical class vessels – matkas, used to contain water. For someone used to the Western studio practice, where every work must be painstakingly unique, here was a spectacle of bountiful repetition. From then on, India provided the horizon for Sandra’s ceramic practice.
The next challenge for Sandra was to find a way of engaging with this living tradition. In 2002, through the Kalakar Trust, an opportunity arose to work with a group of women potters at Kumhaargram on the outskirts of Delhi. Now, working in a potter’s village, she felt more at home:
Just walking into that environment… All the stuff that had been going on in Delhi slipped away and I immediately felt comfortable. It was seeing so much clay around. There were no vehicles and just single storey dwellings. The quietness was quite something.
But not all was as it seemed. Sandra found a role in product development with a group of potters’ wives. Despite good intentions, the whole exercise seemed quite forced. The women were unenthusiastic, the weather was cold and they were more interested in knitting than ceramics.
It was during this time that she met Giri Raj Prasad and Manohar Lal. She was taken to Manohar’s compound were the family was still working with clay despite the cold. She was immediately attracted to him as a self-assured potter with little to prove to anyone else. She also visited Giri Raj Prasad’s workshop. From the work to be seen there, she judged him to be a master of the craft and a personable and generous man. These two men were to be invited to represent their craft abroad.
Step by step, Sandra started to construct a path between the two cultures. Sizing up the village, Sandra gave careful consideration to what her role might be. This stage of Sandra’s journey reveals a remarkable trait. While many would blinded by their own passion to the real needs of others, Sandra is able to step back and look carefully at what is actually required. So, she realised that they actually didn’t need her. They were doing well enough on their own. Rather, it was she who needed them. She speculated that there would be others in Australia just like herself, who would benefit greatly from contact with them. If the Indian potters were willing to come along for the ride, then she would endeavour to make it worthwhile for them too.
In 2003, she organised the potters to come out for the Ceramics Triennial in Bendigo, Victoria, where they amazed locals with their handskills and stone wheel. Manohar Lal was accompanied by the master potter Giri Raj Prasad. For Sandra, the best workshop during their stay was at the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University. There seemed a natural affinity with indigenous artists here.
So the traffic between Australia and India started. Sandra was invited back to stay with the potters in 2004. Then they returned to Australia with another workshop that included Koorie artists. Added to this was a two-week workshop at Qdos Gallery in Lorne, where she hoped they would enjoy working with larger gas kilns. At first the potters were horrified at the idea. They weren’t at all interested in being cut off for two weeks without a definite outcome. But they eventually acceded and the residency appeared to go well, with many works made jointly with the gallery owner, Graeme Wilkie.
The next phase of exchange involved sending the Australian ceramics to India. In 2006, Ceramics Victoria organised an exhibition at Gallery Twentyfive hosted by Delhi Blue Pottery Trust, including work made by the Prasads in Australia. Sales were good, though Sandra was surprised at the lavish catering at the reception. This was one more ‘learning experience’ for working in India. ‘You can’t have an opening with wine and cheese. You have to have an event. You have to go with the way they want to do things.’
In 2008 Giri Raj Prasad and Manohar Lal returned to Australia. By this stage, Sandra had learnt that it was best to organise back to back workshops. These weren’t the kind of visitors who expected to see the penguins at Phillip Island. ‘Having a day off is of no interest. The concept of a holiday is connected only with religious festivals or weddings.’
Sandra’s engagement developed further when she met someone who shared her commitment to craft, but from the Indian side. With the young craft entrepreneur Minhazz Majumbar, Sandra found a person with whom she could have a more fulsome dialogue. Out of their relationship emerged Crosshatched, the overall concept for craft exchanges between Australia and India. According to Sandra, ‘It was about different threads coming together, but not a rigid structure.’
The first event in this new structure was a series of workshops and collaborative exhibitions in Melbourne, 2009. This involved pairings between Indians and Australians who produced joint works of art. Through Minhazz, she was able to broaden the crafts to include scroll painting from the Bengali patachitra tradition. A key to the engagement were workshops in particular new skills. While most activities were popular, printmaking proved a challenge. The Indians found etching difficult and were appalled at the waste of ink. According to Minhazz, the reason for a negative view of printmaking is that it takes away what they value of being an artisan, which is to skilfully copy what has gone before.
By the time Sandra next returned to the village in 2009, the South Asia Foundation had become involved with the potters, seeking opportunities for strategic betterment. While their focus is in broader change such as economic development, SAF is keen to support Sandra’s involvement with potters as a means of increasing their skills.
New revelations continue through Crosshatched. In 2011, Sandra invited Manohar Lal and Dharmveer to her bush residence in Tallarook, as part of a local public commission to make a public art work. Tallarook Stacks involved a column of matkas made by the potters and decorated by the local artists. There was also an auction at Northcote Pottery to raise money to help modify their wood-fired kilns, which had attracted the ire of the City of Delhi as a source of pollution. The potters were amazed to see their matkas, given such little value in India, here selling for a minimum of $60.
For Sandra, Indian potters have something quite special to offer Australians. She notes how affected Australians are at seeing the Indian way of working—‘The complete absorption that the potters have in their work, the grace that they do it with, it’s hard to describe’. By contrast in Australia, ‘We spread ourselves very thinly, whereas they do one thing. Take the chai wallahs for example, they make their tea with great artistry. It’s a life of repetitive action.’
While repetition is a distinctive element in Indian ceramics, Sandra sees a growing capacity for production of original works. This increasing interest in studio ceramics does not attract her. She is more interested in finding new opportunities for traditional potters, such as coming out to work in countries like Australia on temporary visas. Many NGOs offer product development as a means of sustaining craft – adapting traditional ware to more decorative items that can find a way into middle class homes. But Sandra prefers the honesty of functional ware—‘functional forms have some kind of intrinsic beauty.’
The long-term sustainability of Indian pottery is a difficult issue. She doesn’t think they encourage the younger generation to follow their footsteps. For example, many from the village make a handsome wage going to Dubai to operate rickshaws in the good season. They dream of other careers, such as accountancy. Yet in most cases reality triumphs: they end up helping in the family pottery or pursuing unskilled work elsewhere.
Despite her passionate commitment to ceramic exchange, Sandra is no missionary. She often questions the benefits of her involvement. While through Crosshatched she has created many opportunities for one family in particular, she is worried that this can back-fire in the community. Success for a few can often attract envy and resentment from the many. This sceptical approach has been very important in the development of Sandra’s career, ensuring that she remains open to other people’s experience, not just her own sense of what should be right.
In the end, Sandra returns to the solidarity of potters:
When I first went to India, and people asked me what I do, I would say ‘Potter.’ After some time, someone said I should say ‘Teacher.’ instead. It took me time to realize this was a caste issue. I now say, ‘I am a potter’. By being a potter the people I visit can relate to me in a way that is comfortable. In Australia, people won’t refuse a cup of tea from you because you’re a potter, whereas that could be the case in India.
On one trip I visited a festival with a potter family, when we took chai from a particular vendor I was told that I can have chai here because it’s for potters. Pointing behind us, my friend said ‘and there’s a dharamsala where potters can stay.’ You have a place. I feel privileged to be included in their community.
As a potter, it seems that Sandra feels as much at home in India as she does in Australia. But rather than escape to India, she wants to bring some of that ethic back to Australia. For ten years she’s been exploring how that might happen. She is likely to be still working on this for another ten years. Meanwhile, in her own work she has recently eschewed her signature decorative style for something more simplistic. She states that finally the elemental craft of the traditional potters can be felt in her work.
I enjoyed reading your blog. A few days ago I returned from a month in Pakistan and India visiting tribal villages and the women who are master embroiderers, quilt makers and weavers for a book I am writing and an exhibition of their work later in the year. A number of them asked if it was possible to come to Australia to give workshops on their art. Any advice you can give me would be very, very welcome re grants or places to try. Thanks for your inspiration
[…] connections with Indian culture through respect for their craft traditions. You can read her story here and listen to the recent ABC Radio National program about her […]
Good job Sandra mam. Miss you. Most welcome in India.