Just as clay is moulded on a potter’s wheel into objects of utility and beauty, a documentary on the legendary ceramist Sardar Gurcharan Singh takes shape unhurriedly and elegantly.

Nirmal Chander’s The Lotus and the Swan lays out Singh’s pioneering efforts to popularise studio pottery in India. A journey that began in the 1910s ended with Singh’s death in 1995, at the age of 99. As the 71-minute documentary reveals, Gurcharan Singh’s legacy lives on through his son Mansimran Singh – also an established studio potter – and students and ceramists whom he inspired and encouraged over the decades.

The Lotus and the Swan was recently premiered in Delhi. The film has been produced by the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust, which Singh established in 1995 (his commercial studio, Delhi Blue Art Pottery, had been set up in 1952). Although a commissioned project, there is much to savour in the warm interviews, rich archival material and the care with which the pottery has been filmed.

Nirmal Chander has written and edited the documentary along with Reena Mohan. Gurcharan Singh’s preoccupation with both functionality and aesthetics is reflected in the film’s crisp tone and tranquil imagery (the cinematography is by Chander, K Nandha Kumar and Ranjan Palit). Close-ups of Singh’s creations, which are cherished by their owners, make us see the skill involved in their execution as well as their exquisiteness.

One of the most fascinating sections explores the time spent by Singh in Japan. In 1919, as a student in Tokyo, Singh met such luminaries in his field as Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. “His white turban, black beard and distinguish Sikh features made him at once conspicuous, and he quickly began to win respect for his social qualities and a wide culture, Oriental and Western alike,” notes a newspaper report from 1922, when Singh held his first-ever show of ceramics in Tokyo.

Noritaka Asakawa and Sardar Gurucharan Singh. Courtesy Delhi Blue Pottery Trust.

Several studio potters speak of the impact of Japanese and Korean styles on Singh’s work, as well as the distinctive Indian touches he gave the soup bowls and mugs that were pouring out of his kiln in Delhi. Indeed, the documentary could have expanded on this Asian influence, which ran counter to the prevailing preference for Western styles, so that we may have better understood Singh’s practice.

The film also reveals elements of Singh’s personality – his booming laugh, his generosity and gregariousness, his rigour and life-long dedication to his art. On the day he died, Singh had glazed a handful of bowls and left them to be fired in his kiln. One of the teachers hired by Singh to train future potters recalls his advice to her: “You can’t make anyone a ceramist, but you can make people respect clay.”

From the blue-green ceramic grills separating balconies at the India International Centre in Delhi to Delhi Blue Art Pottery products retailed through such stores as The Shop, Singh’s works are more widely available than we realise. Another of his associates comments that potters are never given their due because their creations as seen as “breakable items”. Above all, The Lotus and the Swan is a tribute is to the permanent effect Singh had on the Indian ceramics scene.

The Lotus and the Swan (2023). Courtesy Delhi Blue Pottery Trust.