Clay Culture: Tradition and Change

In Bhutan, the variety in ceramic production includes unfired sculpture, traditional unglazed pots, and modern pottery. All three have a focus on religious and cultural themes and values unique to the country.

Bhutan is a small, landlocked country skirting the southern side of the Himalayan mountain range. Sandwiched between the two iconic Asian superpowers, China and India, it has never been ruled by outsiders—that includes British colonialists. The culture is defined by its Buddhist beliefs—most resembling Tibet in its dress, architecture, and ubiquitous spirituality. Aided by its naturally isolated geography, Bhutan remained independent from outside influence well into the 20th century. Today, it is perhaps most famous for its principle of measuring Gross National Happiness as a barometer of successful modernization; a response to what it sees as the corrupting power of capitalism. In my brief travels there, it was fascinating to view ceramics as a lens through which traditions are carried forward in a more purposeful approach to national development.

1 The traditional shape for cooking Bhutanese curries, pit-fired stoneware, artist and date unknown. Probably made in the traditional Bhutanese ceramic town Trongsa.

2 Sample work at Yangphel Pottery, incense burner, 6½ in. (17 cm) in height, stoneware, incised design, fired to 1832°F (1000°C).

Education: Thimphu Institute for Zorig Chusum

The Thimphu Institute for Zorig Chusum is Bhutan’s only higher education arts institute. Zorig Chusum is Bhutanese for “13 traditional crafts” and while they don’t teach pottery there, they do have a very unique type of traditional unfired clay sculpture, called Kusa, ku means statue and sa means soil. Kusa statues are very similar in style to the Buddhist and Hindu sculptural iconography commonly seen in Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. However, many of these religious statues are molded out of metals, like bronze, whereas these Kusa figures are solely sculpted out of unfired clay. The clay is mixed with minerals and plants, such as juniper, to give it strength and prevent cracking. The students study for six years, in groups of about six to twelve students per grade. Each year they continuously work on one statue, with everyone working off the same example piece. The examples become progressively larger and more complicated human figures as the students’ skills progress in their studies. There is a special focus on creating the right proportions; it is said that if the Buddha you create is disfigured you will be punished in the next life by being similarly disfigured! After a statue is finished and dried, the clay is covered with bright colors, including gold. Finished work by the students is sold at the institute’s shop to help provide much needed funds for the school.

Kusa statues of Buddha and other notable Bhutanese historical figures are essential to the altars of Bhutanese temples and monasteries. The work by the great masters can reach up to 20 feet in height—with backdrops similarly created using this method stretching 60 feet across—that last hundreds of years, and have as fine detailing as any Chinese or Indian bronze statues. Unfortunately, photography within temples and monasteries is strictly prohibited so I cannot show you these marvelous scenes created out of clay. But between the scale and dazzling colors, they create extensive displays of the country’s history and spirituality that are distinctly Bhutanese in style.

3 Teapot, pit-fired and painted stoneware.

4 Sample plate work, design called Tashi Tagay, which means the eight lucky signs, overglaze on porcelain, overglaze fired to 1292°F (700°C).

Tradition and Modernization: The Yangphel Pottery and Ceramic Studio

The Bhutanese word for ceramics is sazam, sa meaning soil or clay and zam meaning pot. In medieval times, Trongsa, located in Eastern Bhutan was the center of pottery production, due to its rich clay deposits. There, traditional pots—such as jaze (pronounced jazzy) for making the traditional local spirit called ara; or thro, the traditional form for cooking curries—were formed by hand using red earthenware clay and fired without glaze. Travelling salesmen would then carry the wares throughout the kingdom to sell. Although there is still production in Trongsa today, it cannot compete with the mass manufactured wares coming in from India, which are cheaper and more durable, causing the scale of production to steadily decline. The Tarayama Foundation, founded by the Queen Mother, is organized to support the traditional crafts of Bhutan and has provided means to keep the Trongsa pottery tradition alive.

Yangphel Pottery and Ceramic Studio has been open for nine years and is located at the base of Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan’s most famous tourist attraction, just outside Paro, the second largest city, and is the only modern ceramic studio in Bhutan. I met with Yeshey Wangchuk, the 24-year-old manager, who showed me around and explained their work and processes.

5 Jaze, pit-fired stoneware. Traditional shape for fermenting Bhutanese alcohol, ara.

6 Women paint on overglaze designs in Yangphel’s workroom.

Materials and Process

Yangphel Pottery consists of two small buildings, the administrative and the storage/main building, where they paint the pieces and have a tiny showroom. The attached kiln shed consisting of one gas kiln and one small electric test kiln.

Yangphel has two production series based on the clay body. The first one is overglaze on porcelain. Because porcelain is not naturally occurring in Bhutan, they order plaster-cast bisqued plates and teacups from Thailand. The second series is based on imported Indian clay that Yangphel mixes with Bhutanese red clay locally mined from Paro to give it a higher plasticity and a smoother feel (to make it easier to work with) as well as to gain a higher rate of successful firing. This series of work is designed and formed on the wheel at Yangphel. One of the women who paints overglaze is the sole production potter for Yangphel and she works at the lone wheel in the kiln shed.

Buddhist belief and symbolism is at the heart of the decorative motifs and forms that Yangphel produces. Recurring symbols in Buddhism are common, such as the pema, or the Buddhist lotus flower, and a popular form is the guphor, the shape of Buddha’s alms bowl. They also paint famous scenes from the Bhutanese landscape, such as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery hugging the cliff face.

The decoration at Yangphel is exclusively overglaze and gold with all the materials imported from Thailand. When I visited, there was a room of six women quietly chatting while they painted. Although the designs are set rather than developed individually, each woman signs her name on the bottom of her finished piece. They actually paint on the gold first and then fill it in with the overglaze. The work is then fired in an electric kiln in oxidation to 1382°F (750°C) for four hours. The work made from the Indian/Bhutanese clay mix is bisque fired to 1832°F (1000°C).

7 Our tour guide steps through the gate of Yangphel Pottery, at the base of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

8 Second-year student at the Zorig Chusum, Bhutan’s only higher education arts institute, making a traditional Bhutanese Buddhist statue, called a Kusa.

9 Tiger’s Nest, built in 1692, dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.

As Yangphel is the only modern pottery in Bhutan, they sell exclusively in hotels that cater to foreign tourists. In addition, they are the designers and manufacturers of the Royal family’s formal dinnerware set for receiving foreign guests. They do not sell their pieces outside of Bhutan.

For more information, please check out the Yangphel Pottery page on Facebook. For a more general interest in the promotion of rural crafts in Bhutan, look at the Tarayama Foundation Facebook page.

the author Maggie Connolly received her MFA from Tsinghua University School of Fine Arts in Beijing and her PhD from Tokyo University of the Fine Arts. Currently, she works as an independent specialized researcher at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts in Tokyo, Japan.

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