A cellular, open-mouthed face greets visitors at the Contemporary Gallery in Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra. Titled Man Exhibiting Holes, it is the work of one of India’s most well-known visual artists, LN Tallur. Assembled using hollowed-out terracotta and cement, the arresting sculpture stands on a pedestal.

In the section to its left is Madhvi Subrahmanian’s Forest of Shadows. The work features cage-like objects mounted on two walls facing each other and several small, enigmatic forms jutting out from the wall in between, covering it entirely. The list of materials includes “light, shadow and projection” and it is the shapes cast by these stoneware objects on the walls that constitute the work.

Subrahmanian is one of the six artists responsible for curating the inaugural Indian Ceramics Triennale. Titled Breaking Ground, it opened on August 31 at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, and marks an important moment in the exhibition history of the plastic arts in India. Positioning itself as a corrective, the Triennale seeks to address the neglect of ceramics in the fine arts discourse, particularly of contemporary practices and technologies associated with the art. Apart from Subrahmanian the other curators include Anjani Khanna, Neha Kudchadkar, Reyaz Badruddin, Sharbani Das Gupta and Vineet Kacker.

Featuring 47 ceramicists from India and abroad, the 10-week long event includes a film programme, masterclasses with renowned ceramicists and workshops for children. In addition, there is on view a collateral exhibition of the works of Kripal Singh Shekhawat, best known for his revival of the Jaipur Blue Pottery tradition.

Ray Meeker's 'Rio Stela: America First!'.

Building with fire

The Jawahar Kala Kendra, a sprawling, airy complex designed by Charles Correa, allows for a diversity of works to command their own space. “We put up the works not in any thematic or chronological order but according to what worked best where and which works complemented others,” said Subrahmanian. While the two main galleries – Contemporary and Sphatic – house the bulk of the works across their two floors, four smaller galleries are devoted to specific projects. Nine artworks dot the outdoor expanse, surprising viewers by being either inconspicuous – like Ajay Kanwal’s porcelain Foot Mat, which mimics the ubiquitous black, perforated rubber ones – or confrontational, such as Rio Stela: America First!, a stoneware obelisk by Ray Meeker that is a critique of the United States’ stance at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992.

Meeker co-founded with Deborah Smith a production workshop called Golden Bridge Pottery in Puducherry in 1971, and their artistic and pedagogical interventions have influenced generations of Indian ceramicists. His new book Building With Fire, launched at the Triennale, explores the process of using fire to bind construction materials. This is an interest – inspired by the writings of Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili – that Meeker has in common with Jacques Kaufmann, whose piece To Purify Space is one of the first works that greets visitors before they proceed inside the Kendra. Comprising bricks, bamboo and mirrors, Kaufmann’s primitive, igloo-like structure was his attempt to see if the water-resistance of fired clay could be used to create habitats.

Jacques Kaufmann's 'To Purify Space'.

One of the themes running through the Triennale is a desire to show the ways in which clay behaves with a range of materials. A broad term that encompasses a variety of clay-based materials and treatments, ceramics is often used interchangeably with pottery, though the latter is just one genre. “While clay is an ancient material that shapes our understanding of civilisations, ceramics as an art form is relatively new worldwide,” said Pooja Sood, director general of the Jawahar Kala Kendra and one of the Triennale’s advisors.

The distinction of art from craft has a vexatious history: in the subcontinent, the latter is often relegated to the status of unchanging heritage as an idiom for nationhood, to be learned as a skill and not simply developed as an individual expression.

Gesturing towards this tension in Gallery 1 is Kripal Singh Shekhawat: Artist, Muralist and Revivalist, curated by Kristine Michaels and supported by the Delhi Art Gallery. Trained at Santiniketan and Japan in the early 20th century, Shekhawat’s recovery and injection of an old form with fresh vocabulary is significant. A compact survey of Shekhawat’s legacy, it illuminated his practice as an amalgam of influences – Ajanta, Mughal, Edo, Modernist – and offers an early glimpse of the challenge to the division between artist and artisan.

Madhvi Subrahmanian’s 'Forest of Shadows'.

Against this blurring of boundaries, what were the criteria for selection?

“Once we knew we could do the show at Jawahar Kala Kendra, we put out an open call and selected participants,” explained Kudchadkar. “We received 100 entries and in the course of the process, we got to see such a wide range of practices.” The works of 35 Indians are displayed and they include well-known names such as Tallur, Thukral & Tagra and Benitha Perciyal, all installed inside the Contemporary Gallery.

British ceramic artists.

To decide on the international participants, all six curators first came up with a list of foreign artists with whom they had professional connections and then discussed the names. “Our decisions were based on artistic factors like choosing a range of styles and considering which works best spoke to each other, as well as logistical factors like budgetary constraints,” Subrahmanian said.

British ceramicist Kate Malone installed her studio inside Graphic Studio 2, making her practice available in the form of works produced on site, as well as audiovisual documentation. She displayed work from her collection and those by other members of her Balls Pond Studio. Another project, Made Out of Place, was a multimedia installation that resulted from a programme called Heart:Beat, under which British Ceramics Biennale artists collaborated with Warli artists.

Mounted in Gallery 3 are the works of Ramesh and Rasika Hengadi, ceramicists Joanne Ayre and Stephen Dixon, artist Jasleen Kaur, filmmaker Johnny Magee and musician and sound artist Jason Singh. The busy installation demands close attention to the accompanying text, so that the viewer can derive a narrative from the disparate materials of seven different artists – textiles, “tiles, bricks, ceramic, moulds…film and sound”. Given India’s history with Britain and the legacy of the objectifying colonial gaze, it prompts reflection on the politics of such tie-ups that often suggest a schism between contemporary international art and premodern local craft.

Juree Kim.

This desire to infuse clay with new media is echoed by the performance-based pieces of Juree Kim and Ester Beck, both of which use videos. Another addition to the architectural preoccupation running through the Triennale, Juree Kim’s Evanescent Landscape – Svargalok, Jaipur continues her practice of carefully constructing clay houses and destroying them with water, much like Tibetan sand mandalas. On the opening night, viewers who had been admiring her intricate rendition of the eponymous building from a Rajasthani miniature, gasped audibly as she poured water into its transparent tray, initiating its slow destruction.

In the Sphatic Gallery, Vishnu Thozhur Kolleri’s retro-futuristic terracotta and paper clay Resonance Tower Phase I promises haptic and auditory delights by having viewers interact with gadgets that activate a soundtrack of their movements and the artist’s pre-recorded loop over camouflaged speakers. What occurs when sound occupies space inside clay? This is the question the artist seems to be asking.

Vishnu Thozhur Kolleri’s 'Resonance Tower Phase I'.

One reason for this surge of interest in experimenting with ceramics might be an increasing anxiety around the handmade. In a world where digital media and virtual reality have become governing principles, the allure of the tactile, of physical objects crafted with care and available to touch, gets intensified. “With the rise of digital art forms, those guided by photographic and computerised methods and designed for instantaneous mass distribution, we have seen a parallel movement towards the appreciation of the artisanal, the hand-made, the slow and the intimate,” said gallerist Peter Nagy, a member of the advisory committee.

The playful works of Ingrid Murphy trouble these neat categories. She combines augmented reality, internet of things, 3D printing and other computer technologies with traditional ceramic substances like bone china. For instance, in Space Plates of Jaipur, seemingly innocuous plates inlaid with photos of Jaipur’s landmarks are scanned with smartphone apps to show their 360-degree views, almost as if one has entered the china surface. “I like bringing people to ordinary objects through advanced technology,” said Murphy. “It’s just a matter of revealing what’s hidden in plain sight.” The first Indian Ceramics Triennale does just that by making visible a marginalised aspect of modern and contemporary Indian art.

Ingrid Murphy's 'Space Plates of Jaipur'.

All photos courtesy Shine Bhola and the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur.