by Sasha AltafMay 05, 2023
Why are your lines shy?
- Oh, should they be aggressive?
That is up to you, but make them clean and confident.
My first ever critique with the master ceramist, Jyotsna Bhatt, was at a workshop that she conducted in 2000 at the Andretta Pottery founded by Mini and Mary, son and daughter-in-law of Sardar Gurcharan Singh, known as the father of studio pottery in India. The pottery studios are located at the rock-bottom of a beautiful valley in Himachal Pradesh, by a stream, surrounded by lush mountains and the snow-capped Dhauladhar Range. I can still picture her sitting on the potter's wheel (a manual kick-wheel at that), perfectly draped in a saree, and bun-shaped hairdo. Not a strand out of place and wearing a warm smile…working in clay. When at the end of it I would have splashed clay around and all over myself, she would step down the wheel without a drop on her clothes.
Born Jyotsna Shroff in 1940 in Kutch, Jyotsnaben (as she was fondly referred to) lost her father when she was still young. She grew up with her uncle who although belonged to traditional values and a family focussed on business, but encouraged her love for arts and crafts. After studying at Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai for a year, she enrolled to study sculpture at MS University in Baroda in 1958, under the tutelage of artist-educator Sankho Chaudhuri. This is where she discovered her calling in clay. Here she also met Jyoti Bhatt, her future husband, a revered printmaker and photographer, and now a recipient of the Padma Shri award. Later, she joined Bhatt to USA where he was studying on a Fulbright Scholarship and she ended up taking classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School in New York.
Exposure to avant-garde contemporary art influenced her outlook and expanded her horizon, but at the core she remained devoted to the craft. She began making sculptural pottery, and in 1972 joined the MS University as a faculty. It was at the time when contemporary clay practice in India was still at a nascent stage. She and her handful contemporaries became the trailblazers of ceramics in the country. They built things ground-up, from access to clay, making tools to constructing kilns and encouraging viewership. Her gentle demeanour and a sharing persona fostered innumerable students into experiencing clay.
PR Daroz, now a celebrated and one of the most sought-after ceramic artists of the country, met Jyotsnaben as a student at the MS University in early 1970s. He was awarded a scholarship that enabled him to join the course. “She was only four years elder to me. She was more of a friend although was my teacher. Ceramics was evolving and we were all in it together,” says Daroz. What is noteworthy is that temperamentally, he was diametrically opposite to her. Where she focussed on a limited palette and techniques, Daroz wanted to embrace the expanse of ceramics with its endless possibilities.
“Ideological friction continued with Jyotsnaben till the last conversation I had with her recently,” he adds. Their mutual respect and admiration is known to one and all. “She chose perfection and would always tell me that I have done more experiments than can be imagined in one lifetime to explore clay,” says Daroz.
Jyotsnaben touched many lives and her circle of influence was far reaching. “I was nervous as someone who migrated from another city to study at the MS University in Baroda. I still vividly remember a conversation with ma’am when she counselled me to not lose hope. She took her own example and said that there would be times when you will have no money, but that’s exactly when you need to continue your pursuit,” reminisces contemporary artist Dilip Chobisa, who completed his masters from the university in 2004. And before leaving the students practicing on the wheel, she would say, “Imagine you are making your own self with clay…now how well you want to make your own reflection is up to you,” mentions Chobisa. When one un-layers this seemingly simple statement, her profound guidance becomes evident that as creators we need to be honest to who we are, to reflect our own personalities in the character of our work.
Ceramist Vinod Kumar credits her for his continued love for clay and making it his lifelong vocation. “Jyotsna ma’am taught me to respect clay as though it was gold. She nurtured experimentation but frowned upon anyone fooling around with the medium,” he says. A perfectionist, she placed high respect for skill above everything else. “Execution was very important to ma’am, from something as simple as slip-trailing to glaze application. The way she would explain with clarity ensured a long-lasting learning experience. She kept no secrets and if she was herself not sure of something, she would painstakingly research and get back with an explanation,” says Kumar, who completed his masters in 1999.
Jyotsnaben’s own work was all about the beauty and poetics of nature. Her repertoire almost always revolved around her interpretations of nature itself – from flora and fauna to clouds and landscapes. Her own delicate frame would create works that seemed precious. Always in small-format, her process was to alter the basic form, often wheel thrown. Frogs, birds and squirrels were most sought after, but her cats remained all-time favourite for all her followers. Her animal forms were full of life and detailed nuances. Jyotsnaben would achieve visual delight by cutting, slapping, stretching and twisting her work. She had deepest regard for KG Subramanyan and his ideology that kept crafts at the core of all art practices. Jyoti Bhatt was not just her life partner, but also a pillar of strength and a critic she respected.
I had the most scrumptious dinner that Jyotsnaben prepared on July 11, 2019. It is serendipitous that the same day this year, I woke up to the news of her passing, and simultaneously a social media reminder of my evening with the Bhatts at their residence. I would jokingly call her my great-grand-guru (my teacher’s teacher’s teacher) and she would say “…yet I have learnt so much from you, so you are my guru”. That was her humility. Jyotsnaben, you will be missed but your life and works will be celebrated for all the times to come. The clay cat, your gift to me for 2002 New Year watches over me.