Studio pottery shines in Chennai as more working professionals turn artists

The city of Chennai recently witnessed an unexpected revelation in the realm of arts and crafts. During the inaugural studio potters’ market, an air of astonishment permeated the atmosphere. One visitor, an elderly man, voiced his amazement quite audibly, his words echoing the sentiment of many, as he collected his newly bought, newspaper-wrapped tableware, “I did not know there were so many pottery artists in Chennai!”

The market, a bustling two-day affair, unfolded within the welcoming walls of Apparao Galleries the previous month, quickly becoming a site of numerous spontaneous purchases and eager exchanges of business cards. With twenty-one studio potters converging in this space, it was a significant portal into the city’s flourishing studio pottery community—a scene that has notably expanded over the past three years.

While many associate pottery with Auroville’s foundational Golden Bridge Pottery, thanks to the efforts of Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith, Chennai’s artisanal tapestry is being woven with fresh threads, both creators and collectors contributing to the fabric. Adil Writer, a distinguished ceramic artist and painter residing in Auroville, commented on this burgeoning interest, which has surged since the pandemic. “People who had never touched clay before are now setting up electric kilns on balconies, shaping and firing their creations. They’re enamored with the idea of crafting something by hand, something inherently Indian.”

Studio pottery, distinct from its traditional counterpart, tends to carry an experimental narrative, contrasting with the utility-focused and generationally-honed practices of conventional potters—a demarcation that is becoming increasingly evident. India has yet to fully embrace numerous potter communities breaking into the mainstream with such work.

Beyond pandemic-driven hobbies, young creators are increasingly turning their passion into profession. Their catalogs reveal a diverse array from sculptures to custom decor pieces, as potters’ markets pop up nationwide, facilitating the journey of up-and-coming artists.

For novices like Gowri Natarajan, who founded GN Studio Pottery in early 2020, the medium of clay enticed her away from the banking industry. “I longed to craft something tangible. Initially, carpentry was my first choice,” she admitted. However, personal loss during the pandemic led her to immerse herself fully in the world of clay.

Artists like Unna Annamalai, an architect and the proprietor of MudPie Pottery Studio, find clay to be grounding. She believes working with clay connects her to the fundamental elements of nature. Her sentiments are echoed in the increasing patronage of handcrafted pottery items that carry a higher value than mass-produced alternatives.

This shift in public perception towards handmade pottery is significant. Unna points out that customers now understand the labor and love instilled in a custom piece. Adil observes that individuals from various socioeconomic backgrounds are now opting for fine ceramics in daily use—a testament to their desire to surround themselves with beauty.

Educational opportunities in pottery are also witnessing a spike in popularity. The Hindustan Trading Company in Chennai has seen its pottery workshops, suited for all ages, completely booked. Amritha Venketakrishnan, the current owner, emphasizes the sensory and age-defying nature of pottery.

Yet, as Gowri notes, prospective potters must navigate the high costs of quality materials and the reality that it may take time for their studio to turn a profit. Social media, while a powerful tool to reach a wider audience, also comes with the challenge of distinguishing original work from the flood of custom imitation requests.

The proposition is clear: to truly thrive, potters ought to first master their craft before attempting to define their unique styles and pathways. Adil wraps up the sentiment neatly, expressing that the role of the potter—once humbly viewed, now embraced with a newfound respect—is to bring functional beauty into everyday life. This cultural movement, now surfacing in Chennai, promises a vibrant future for studio pottery and for those who craft it with their hands and hearts.

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