Mahima Singh: Adventure, Innovation, and Adaptation

Striped cups and mugs, 4 in. (9 cm) in height, Grolleg porcelain, 2016.

I first noticed Mahima Singh’s work on the Pottery Northwest (PNW) kiln-room shelves. I was halfway through my residency there, and unloading a kiln one morning to make room for my firing later that day. Class bisque work always looks much of a muchness to me—rose-colored clay, and a 30-person class worth of similar bowl or cup shapes. Singh’s cups stood out because she’d done intricate sgraffito work on them when no one else had—a combination of fastidiously rendered text spelling “pizza” and “ice cream,” and with something in a carefully executed foreign script. The precision, care, and the very illustrative nature of her other work stood out to me.

I found out Singh was in the work-study program at PNW in Seattle, Washington, where a commitment of a few hours of time every week is exchanged for a free class for the semester for those in the program. This allows PNW to offer an avenue beyond casual classes, and helps people learn more about clay before considering making the commitment to the residency program. As Singh put it, “that was when I realized that maintaining a studio is delicious, rewarding, physical work. I enjoyed scooping pasty slurry from the depths of the giant slip buckets (despite the odors) and recycling the clay, had fun mixing glaze because I got to wear a cool mask (a fellow student remarked that I looked like a mad scientist over a simmering cauldron). I did the work study alongside my full-time job. I loved the work-study program. As an outsider who had never studied ceramics, it made me understand the making process and studio cycle a little better, which gave me confidence. I appreciate the staff at PNW who have always said that they support people getting into ceramics irrespective of whether they have a formal background in it.”

Jigsaw bowls, 6 in. (15 cm) in diameter, Grolleg porcelain, 2016.

Mahima Singh with her work in Bangalore, India. All photos: Manu Mahajanp.

Singh’s day job was as a fundraising coordinator for a national non-governmental organization (NGO) that builds public parks. “I love Seattle for its parks and open spaces. Seattleites are proud of their city’s emerald-ness, and that’s a big contributor to Seattle’s outdoorsy vibe. I wish we had an NGO like that in India, where everything is overcrowded and a city takes more pride in its malls than public services. These feelings bleed into the motifs I make on my pottery’s surfaces. I want to make work that people connect with in a very uncomplicated way. And I try to do that with my surface treatment. There is so much kitchenware an urban householder can choose from in the market. So in my pots I want people to have their taste, choices, and life context reflected clearly when I scribe, ‘Coffee Loving Cyclist’ or ‘Happiest Among Trees.’ I want the user to think ‘this cup is made (literally made by hand) for me!’ When I say choices, I don’t mean defining choices in a manner of sweepingly defining identities, but rather that small choices make up our identity bit by bit. Plus, a little whimsy brings innocence and silliness to life. My pots are not serious. They’re not precious.”

Research and Relocation

After five years in Seattle, Singh and her husband moved home to India. A published academic, Singh did not undertake this decision lightly—and a lot of work and research went into choosing which city they would move to. India is roughly ¹⁄³ the size of the US, so relocation closer to family didn’t have to mean the same city as their parents. Taking into consideration lifestyle, professions, and clay, they decided on Bangalore. This had a lot to do with Singh discovering Clay Station (www.claystation.in), a community studio, learning center, and the only importer of Skutt kilns and Shimpo wheels in India. Clay Station was set up by Ganesan Manickavasagam (he goes by Ganesh) who left a thriving information technology career because he wanted to do something meaningful and help people feel connected with a tactile experience.

Now in Bangalore (often dubbed India’s Silicon Valley), Singh has had six months of finding her feet. “Bangalore used to be a sleepy, quiet city with yummy weather (it’s a perfect 70–75°F most of the year) ideal for retired people, and now it’s having to deal with terrific volumes of people, cars, and cows alike.”

The rapid growth in the last 15 years, and poor city planning makes traffic insane and housing overcrowded. Bicycling in the street is not a safe option, driving is a survival sport, and a walk outside leaves a reminder in your lungs like its time to change your studio air filters. On the flip side, there is want for nothing, the local amazon.com equivalent, Flipkart, delivers everything to your door. When you do venture to the grocery store, the produce, like in Europe, is non GMO and the quality and flavor is outstanding.

Landscape bowl, 6 in. (15 cm) in diameter, Grolleg porcelain, 2016.

The Party Gamla, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, terra cotta, slip, clear glaze, 2016.

Singh described Clay Station as feeling like you are working on “someone’s private terrace in a quiet neighborhood. It has thatched roofing, brick walls, and lush, monsoon-drenched trees hanging over the uncovered areas. There’s also a studio dog named Sammy who I carry biscuits for every week. Their revenue comes from not only selling their clay to ceramic artists around the country, but also offering small group classes to beginners, and making customized tableware for a few hip bars and cafés around town. Now they’re branching out into setting up studios at schools and colleges so that ‘a potter comes out of every classroom.’ It’s quite lovely.”

In talking about her adjustment to India, Singh laughed, “we have no timeline in India.” Her clay career started more slowly than she was expecting, but within six months of being there, she’s given demos in schools, has taught group classes at an architectural college, and has taken on a private student. Starting this year, she’ll also have a design-school intern working with her.

Singh speaks with such self-awareness of living with her feet in two cultures. She feels a responsibility to her students, and those around her to share what she learned while living in Seattle, “you don’t know the possibilities, until you know the possibilities.” She begins her sessions by sharing ceramics she bought or was gifted in the US and South America—sharing the work of people who’ve made a career of clay. She loves seeing the light bulbs go off for her students. As they take in the details, she asks students to consider what makes a foot, lip, or handle work. Sharing in that joy, I know many of you can understand–seeing students work transition from casual makers to diligent practitioners.

Two Threads

Within her own work, there are two threads she’s working with—material and context. The material is locally sourced. Unlike here in the US where you find a clay body you like and commit to it, and are able to predict its behavior over and over, in Bangalore the clay is locally mined, and one batch isn’t always consistent with the next one, and testing starts all over again. Singh spends a lot of her time developing glazes and slips that will fit the current batch of clay and then she moves on to making the work.

We’ve talked a lot about the context of her work—as it is a complex issue. “I don’t know what Indian ceramics is yet,” she says. “There is the traditional work—the Indian subcontinent has a very rich history of working with clay, and there are hundreds of regional styles of making. I guess most can be called studio potteries because they’re run by families who have been in the business for generations, often because their caste is ‘expected to be’ potters. But a lot of traditional work is stagnant, catering not only to the local communities but also to a Western audience that has predetermined notions of what Indian pottery should be. There’s pride in the tradition, which is mostly beautiful and commendable, but with that pride also comes the stifling of adventure, innovation, and adaptation.”

“I think a few things are impacting people’s tastes in urban India:

1 Concerns regarding health safety when it comes to traditional ware (will the glaze be leaded? Is it safe to cook in earthenware?)

2 An affluent urban middle class that can afford to care about buying more ornate things for their homes

3 A palette influenced by global trends, and customer tastes or demands for something contemporary and fresh.”

The Start of a New Field

“I was asked by someone here if I want to be an ‘Indian potter,’ or worse ‘make contemporary pottery with an Indian twist,’ whatever that means! Such questions also reflect that there’s a void in the conversation on contemporary ceramics in India. I don’t want to be an ‘Indian potter,’ I just want to be a potter who makes things she likes, and I happen to make them in India. I don’t want to be a poster girl for, ‘this is what Indian ceramics is about these days.’ I inhabit one of multiple Indias, and I want my work to loosely echo my reality as a city person with city tastes, to put it bluntly. Because I’ve been a student of history, I want my work to be true to my present (in terms of materials, tools, equipment, and motifs) without worrying whether I’m reflecting a wider culture of some sort.”

“Finally, I’ve realized that because I lack any formal training in clay, I mostly feel liberated (occasionally I wish I knew more about glaze theory). I can take it anywhere I want because I don’t feel constrained by its traditional scholarship or historical debates (for example: craft versus art). And because urban studio pottery is new to India, I feel that all of us here are contributing to the start of a new field. It’s an exciting time.”

To add my final thought to Singh’s, isn’t it a joy to see the world through someone else’s eyes?!

See more of Singh’s work on Instagram @clayisokay.

the authorSarah Kaye is an artist and designer living in Seattle, Washington. To learn more visit www.skayeceramics.com.

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