His gnarled hands rivet my gaze. Bronzed as the good earth, rope-veined and thick-knuckled, they scoop clay from a damp gunny-sack, creating a mound on a wooden potter’s wheel. A rough pole spins it to life. The clay morphs into a cylinder as he draws its uneven, wobbly walls upwards. In a trice, it is a ridge-edged platter, etched with zigzag lines.
He deftly slits the platter off the still turning wheel with a thread. Before my disbelieving eyes, he spontaneously creates a jug, a teapot, a bowl, till the wheel is bare of clay.
It is February 1981. As a rookie journalist for Indian Express in Chennai (then Madras), this is my first encounter with National Award winning potter Ismail Siddiq, then 72. He is at the 10-day Kumbha workshop, surrounded by Dhirendranath Pal from Goalpara in Assam, Thirunayak Arasu from Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu, Lakshmi Chand from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and other pan-Indian clay wizards.
At 20-plus, my mind flits to the beautiful living room at our tiny flat, designed to Ma’s fine-honed aesthetic taste. To the original paintings by Gopal Ghosh and Shiavax Chavda, jostling for space with Madhubani art long before it became a market trend. To the mythical creatures on the antique wooden lintel from a dismantled Chettinad home. To a folk figure of Ganga Mai from Orissa from a kaftan-clad, bearded art dealer’s collection. Perhaps a result of imbibing Ma’s sensibility over years, I constantly seek the invisible faces behind the textiles and crafts that light up our daily lives.
Initially, I listen to the homegrown tales of Pal, Arasu and their mates as they celebrate terracotta. They know little of English. I have just a smattering of Hindi, Bengali, and Tamil. I watch as they gather around Ismail. They ask him for tips. They pick up his ware to admire it. His gravitas is timeless, as if the clay secrets of Mohenjodaro course through his blood. His clay-spattered dhoti and singlet, the skullcap on his silvered hair, detract little from his presence as a colossus among potters.
Entranced, I gravitate to his wheel. I am too tongue-tied to ask Ismail about his life in Kutch or his craft. Until, during a mid-morning break, he offers me a warm khullar, a little clay cup of tea. I confess my long-nurtured dream, to learn pottery. Ismail looks up from the cup to which he is attaching a handle with clay slip. His eyes smile. In that moment, we become inextricable links in the human chain.
‘Do I play with clay? Do I make terracotta toys every day? No, no, beti, my daughter. This is my life. I know of no other,’ says Ismail, as he concentrates on a long-necked urn. ‘This is what my father did. So did my grandfather. I am proud to be a potter. ’
His stories wander through his ancestral stretch of sand: ‘I am the only potter for a cluster of 20 villages near Bhuj in Kutch. Unlike the city, our ways are not about money, about being richer than our neighbours. Four times a year, the farmers come and take my pots to use at home. In return, they give me grain or goats. Even an occasional cow.’
Ismail’s stories transport me to a rustic reality I know little of. I listen in every morning until a fever keeps me away for a day. When I next approach his tented shamiana, a burly young man in a fluorescent orange T-shirt, checked lungi and sneakers says, ‘Yesterday, my Abbu asked: Why hasn’t my beti come today?’ My breath catches in my throat.
Suleman, Ismail’s tall and bearded son, looks after his Abbu tenderly. In south India, they miss their daily Kutchi fare of dal and roti, their palates finding the local sambhar-rice alien. They dread the rail journey from Chennai to Bhuj, involving transfers across two days and two long nights. As dusk falls, they grow homesick for the white salt desert of the Great Rann of Kutch, for the crowning thatch of their rounded bunga homes, twinkling with mirrors within.
Backed by a B.Com. degree, what of Suleman’s life choices? ‘I tried driving trucks for a while. I earned more, but I did not do that job dil se, from the heart. Like Abbu, I am happiest when I work with clay.’
As Kumbha winds down, Ismail ushers me to a corner of the sun-baked terrace, arrayed with cups, teapots, vases, a quirky elephant. Suleman says, ‘Use these and think of us. Abbu insists that he made them just for you.’ Overwhelmed, I explain our family’s space constraints. But I do take home a vase and a teapot as a legacy of love. In Ismail’s clay-tinted hands, I place Ma’s offering of food for their journey to Bhuj, her response to their homespun stories: rotis and sabji, fafda, aam papad, other salty small bites.
Drawing in a deep breath, Ismail adds, ‘Beti, I will teach you pottery. Come and stay with us in Kutch for as long as you like. You will find no better teacher…’
A decade flits by in a heartbeat. My writer’s notebooks now teem with stories from the legendary Madhubani painter Gangadevi, from Kashmiri embroiderer Bashir Ahmed Jaan, whose exquisite sujni shawl is displayed at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Inevitably, other memories fade to sepia.
By 1991, between jobs in a pre-smartphone age in Chennai, I face the existential dilemma of a dwindling bank balance. I opt for a time-tested beat-the-blues formula. I head for a crafts bazaar.
Within minutes, I succumb to the spell of an emerald Lucknowi chikankari shadow work kurta, embellished with ultra-fine vines in bloom. My wallet contains few notes that count. The courteous vendor agrees to hold it for me against a small advance.
My handmade high persists amidst blue pottery from Jaipur, reed mats from Manipur, leather jootis from Jodhpur, until a voice breaks into my reverie, ‘Aap Aditi hain, na? Aren’t you Aditi?’ I look up at a bearded man of almost 40. ‘Main Suleman hoon, Ismail Siddiq ka beta. I am Suleman, Ismail’s son.’ This time, he escorts his mother Fahmida from Kutch to Chennai. Like Ismail, her pottery has won a National Award. ‘Abbu told us to keep asking the crafts council personnel until we found you,’ adds Suleman, as we sip chai. ‘Meri beti. Abbu still calls you that.’ Fahmida reveals how frail Ismail is at 82, too fragile to make the pottery that is his touchstone.
When day breaks again, I return to the crafts bazaar. I am fazed that my dream kurta is no longer at the Lucknowi stall. As I drown my sorrow in a warm khullar, Suleman comes by, holding out a brown parcel. ‘Didi, your kurta is safe with me,’ he says. ‘I did this for Abbu. He would not want you to be sad, in case your kurta vanished …’ Holding my hand between her palms, Fahmida agrees. Reluctantly, Suleman allows me to reimburse the price to him.
That night, my Baba drives me to where Fahmida and Suleman are in Chennai. We take them home to a dinner I imagine Ismail would love – of toor dal, bhindi, roti, chicken curry and laddoos.
At our door, Fahmida hands me a terracotta plaque she crafted with Kutchi clay, rich with geometric patterns. She adds, ‘Beti, have you learnt pottery already?’ Not yet. ‘Our home is yours. We will teach you, just as I learnt from my Abbu…’
Life, however, has other plans. When I backpack solo through Kutch in the winter of 2009, I do not have the name of Ismail’s village. Nor a mobile number for Suleman or Fahmida. Yet, as my fingers play with an exquisite Merino stole for Ma in Ajrakhpur, I cannot help asking at Irfan Khatri’s natural dye workshop if they know Ismail Siddiq or Suleman.
First, the dyers cluster around us, their hands tinged madder or indigo. They are joined by the chippas, who temporarily abandon their exquisite wooden blocks. They all love a good story. When I pause, Khatri dials Suleman, who lives two villages away. Away in Mumbai with his pottery, unlikely to return to Bhuj for four days. Suleman is incredulous that we are back in touch. But I am slated to return home from Bhuj the next morning. Ismail is no more, Fahmida is frail but still feisty. Suleman extends their invitation to visit yet again.
I know I am invisibly linked to Ismail, Fahmida and Suleman every time my eyes rest on the perfection of Ismail’s classic teapot, still on a shelf in my parent’s Chennai home. As surely as I touch terra firma whenever I marvel at the dhokra nutcracker from Bastar or the Nathdwara phad painting in my Bangalore flat.
Unknown to me, my last mobile phone gobbled up Suleman’s number, along with myriad others. But hope still courses through my veins. As do dreams and the certitude of deep bonds. Who knows? Inshallah, I may still make it to Fahmida’s side in Kutch one day – and learn the essence of pottery from Ismail’s family.