Just back from a holiday in Tamil Nadu. For a spell that was so hopelessly mis-planned and unplanned, I must say it ended up being great fun. Since Amit – calm, efficient, centred – is the producer and general go-to-guy for so many international crews shooting documentaries all over India, it’s logical that the one who plans and executes the family holidays should be me. The paranoid and anxious half.
This trip to TN, started, for some reason, by falling between the stools. I had thought we were on the right track - two days each in Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Auroville. Spaced out so my back wouldn’t give way. But then I got dire warnings – of major BOREDOM, among other things! Fearfully we went, and, as it turned out - thanks to serendipity and human kindness - we had a blast in every way, especially the visual.
Not only did we enjoy Pondi and Auroville, we met some lovely people in these places too. The highlights of the trip were the monoliths of Mahabs (for me the Mahishasuramardini cave which I walked in alone and the bizarrely wonderful sculpture college); Auroville and the Gump-a-lump Xmas party; and finally, the heritage walk with Ashok Panda of Intach, Pondicherry (later, getting gloriously lost in the Tamil Quarter, finding Choco-la, eating their rum choc and getting high under a hot TN sun), and later still, with exceptional luck, being allowed into Ananda Rangapillai’s house by his kind family.
A lot of what we saw and delighted in on this trip – the rock-cut caves in Mahabs, the street sellers sculpting little stone lockets and statues, the whole of the man-made forest in Auroville, the crocheted shoes they make, the cookies they bake, the houses and streets in Pondi, the plaster cast angels and Santas sold outside Samba Kovil, the beautiful beadwork done on Ravi Varma’s lithos by Ananda Ranga's great-grand-daughter-in-law – was about craft in one form or the other.
But the artist we engaged with the most was Saraswati, a ceramic miniaturist, who lives and works in Dana, the pottery community in Auroville. I’ve long liked Auroville’s tradition of contemporary pottery – as seen thru their mugs and cups and plates. Very beautiful, in a remote, still, cool, forest-glade sort of way.
So nothing prepared us for the liveliness of Saraswati’s creations. For its sheer lightness of being. Apart from coffee and some lovely dark chocolate, we were invited to wade through her studio housed in a two-storey house in the middle of the seriously wooded Dana. The studio was colourful, and everything there was small, even the impossibly flat tree frog that leapt across their painted walls. Amit went mad with the photos.
Saraswati’s work is busy, tiny, textured, and totally inventive. Like something out in a story-book-world full of whimsy. Since her pieces are mostly profusely populated miniatures, Saraswati prefers to work with white body clay, which is flexible and thin enough to make what she calls “small and smaller details”.
We can’t help but comment on her unusual colours and how they make the figures look delicate and other-worldly. Turns out that she uses commercial glazes from Russia. “I have got used to them since 20 years, and it’s difficult to break the habit of having really bright and translucent colours,” she qualifies.
Saraswati first heard about Auroville at 15 years. “Since then my mother had dreamt of coming here. It became possible only in 1998, when our country became more open and overcame the main post-Soviet economical crisis. But the final decision of staying here, I took in 2004.” Apart from working in her own studio called Have Fun Pottery, she also teaches at the White Peacock Center for Clay Education with her mother, a teacher and a ceramist.
The house she lives in is greener, wilder than most parts of Auroville that we have walked through (which is, admittedly, not much at all). The tree frogs, the grasses, the flying insects – you feel that it all sort of comes together and resonates through her work, in the many little creatures that she makes to populate her art. “If I were to put it in a hierarchy of values,” she replies, “I would put living in Auroville as a city of dreamers as the most inspiring thing for me. I feel I belong here. Next I would say the green, peaceful surroundings inspire me, and after that, living in Dana. For me it is very important to measure my breath with the rhythm of the big dream of this unique place. I would think that it was a coincidence – a beautiful joke of life – that the Divine put me to live in Dana, where most of the pottery-community live and work.”
There’s a story within each piece that Saraswati crafts, so that you can gaze at it for the longest time. In her kitchen stove series, all of the household’s gustatory needs are found on the stove (including a delicious-loooking fried egg which threatens to ooze off its pan). I loved the earrings and pendants, and her Christmas fridge magnets – a row of snowmen who look like they are in the middle of a good gossip session. Amit’s favourites were, I think, this rather stern, story-book-character looking lady, and this jug which has a world around it.
About her process of creating the pieces, Saraswati says, “Each piece goes through my hands, and this hand-crafting is the longest part of the process. Then it goes through the bisque fire in an electrical furnace for four hours. Then it’s glazed (by brush, all the tiny details are worked on and coloured here), and then it’s finally fired for another six hours. If I am not happy with the result, I may keep adding glazes and firing again till I am satisfied.”
You can see more of Saraswati’s work on her site.