Indulge one-on-one: Priya Sundaravalli discusses the making of art with fellow ceramist Ashwini Bhat

Ceramic specialists Ashwini Bhat and Priya Sundaravalli chat about art, and cultural roots. 

Jaideep Sen Published :  29th October 2018 02:08 PM   |   Published :   |  29th October 2018 02:08 PM
Priya Sundaravalli

Priya Sundaravalli

Priya Sundaravalli became something of a household name when one of her sprawling sculptures got selected for the permanent collection at the new Mumbai airport. A trailblazer in her chosen field of ceramic art, Priya reveals some of her philosophies of life, in a chat with fellow ceramist Ashwini Bhat

Ashwini Bhat: What an interesting shift you've made - from medicine to medical engineering to ceramics. I have always been drawn to the meticulous precision in your work. How much of the surgeon’s discipline do you carry with you in your approach to ceramics or to the everyday life?

Priya Sundaravalli: Probably very little. I don’t have much of a surgeon’s discipline, even though I aced those surgery exams 27 years ago! I am not disciplined in the traditional sense of the word - rather, I'm anarchically disciplined. 

The women in my family are skilled in hand work and perhaps I have inherited their genes along with their restless fingers and hands: my grandmother did exquisite needlework to supplement the family income; my aunt could knit without patterns, and my own mother too makes ultra fine kolams.

But I think what I consider more important is the attitude behind the making – for me it’s a feeling of reverence, of a kind of a prayer in action.

I have subconsciously imbibed a lot from my ceramics teacher/guru, the late Felipe Ortega. Felipe was a master in traditional micaceous cookware. He was a medicine man of Jicarrila Apache origin. Though him, I learnt this reverence for the Clay Mother, which is how he addressed Earth. ‘Clay Mother’ - she was real to him.

Before we dug the mica-rich wild clay at the Carson National Forest in New Mexico in springtime, for collecting the year’s supply, he would begin by offering her a ‘gift’ of blue corn meal requesting her permission to “dig from her belly so that we may co-create her children for her.”

His attitude deeply influenced my approach towards clay. Even today every object that I make, irrespective of how it turns out, is treated as a living being with its own identity, and that’s why I never throw out imperfect objects and I repair broken ones. 

Priya Sundaravalli

AB: There is a meditative quality to your work. The repetitive texture you work on - almost like picking morsels of rice with a chopstick. I remember watching you create a circular pattern in millimetre-size precision on a small bowl, which fit in the centre of your palm… Is it some part of your personality that draws you to this treatment of the clay, or did clay bring out that part of your persona?

PS: Since childhood, I have been fascinated by things that go unseen and unnoticed. Sometimes when I work in clay, I feel I should get myself a jeweller’s loupe!

There is a particular verse from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a Country Churchyard’ that resonates with me: ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: / Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.’ If Gray were alive, I would have written to him requesting that he change the word ‘waste’ into ‘spread’ because I believe no sweetness is ever wasted. 

So many good and beautiful things escape our notice, because they exist under the radar. Unless attention is pointedly directed and placed upon them, they are not even registered as having existed. 

By this, I imply that there are hidden worlds that await to reveal themselves to us and in the process, transform us. This is something I am intrigued by: to discover and give expression to those hidden worlds. This is what I am inwardly seeking, and it necessitates that I have to be conscious and present at all times. It's easy said but hard to practice. It is a life’s long work that lies ahead. 

AB: You have started working on a large-scale in the last few years, but your works are essentially small parts joined to become a whole. This allowed you to keep your style/originality in the way you treat clay and be true to your approach, but at the same time, by putting together a large number of small objects, you achieve the desired large scale as well. What made you want to start exploring larger scale? How did this journey evolve?

PS: I have always been working in large scale through the multiplicity of the small. My earliest installation, created in 2012, now at the new Mumbai airport, lies on a 9 x 4 metre floorscape.

I can perhaps attribute my penchant for large scale to my growing up in Madurai in the late seventies and eighties. Once a week, my grandfather would take me by walk to the Meenakshi temple and back. It was a 7 km roundtrip that doubled as our social outing. Like most temples, everything there was larger than life. The five gopurams were studded with thousand of statuettes and tableaux, but presented themselves as a unified whole. 

Also during these weekly walkathons, one particular memory stands out from the rest: two gigantic statues of a fierce Rudra and a fiercer Kali, both frozen mid-stance in Tandava dance poses. The story goes that the two decide to have a dance contest between themselves to determine which of them is the better dancer. The goddess, though a far superior dancer, loses because of the clothing she wears which prevents her from executing a particular move.

Consequently, she is enraged by this unfairness, and transforms into BhadraKali. To 'cool her anger down', a temple practice came into existence where devotees could throw tiny butter balls at the Goddess. (This practice has been discontinued recently, probably for reasons of hygiene, but also perhaps because the Goddess is no longer angry!)

This was an awe-inspiring sight for anyone to witness and that sight has seared into my visual cortex. So while acknowledging that my roots lie in Madurai, I may also have to admit that my ceramic practice may be subconsciously anchored by what I witnessed at the Meenaskhi temple growing up – of statues with their multiplicity of form and expression, the play of opposites, of activity with stillness, the feminine with the masculine, their dissonances and union, the harmony in the chaos, and ultimately, the oneness in the diversity. Scale is just another aspect to this spectrum of expression.

Priya Sundaravalli's 'Blossoming', bird's eye view

AB: What is your process – start to end of a project?

PS: Often serendipitous and spontaneous. If I go with mental plans worked out on paper, my creation would be self-conscious, and lacking. I've tried, and that process doesn't work for me. If there is any process at all, it starts with a positive ‘feeling,’ often a delight or optimism or gratitude, towards life and living. Then the hands take over.

Like for most artists, inspiration can come from any source – a line of poetry, a strain of music, nostalgia, another artist’s work, a landscape, a particular tree, or an abstract dent in the pavement… anything at all.

Intuition guides the hand to manifest the first prototype, then curiosity and play takeover to see what will become of the next and the next and the next... Simultaneously the hands gain intelligence and fearlessness through the making, and the form evolves through multiplicity. That’s why I often end up making objects in multiple sets, leading to ‘families’ with extended kith and kin! 

This flow of making stops only when I get either physically exhausted or when the bag of clay gets empty, more often the latter because I work like one possessed!

Then I end up putting them together into assemblages as they have a collective root and identity. 
Sometimes the evolution in form and expression is sudden and unexpected, like as in a mutation, and what gets expressed is an advanced version, that seems to have skipped some intermediary steps. Then one is taken by surprise, and wonders if there is not an invisible intelligence that is guiding and directing. 

Also, I find that the simple physical act of ‘working’ is crucial to the creative process, and this by itself removes obstacles and friction, enabling the discoveries to be bountiful.

But now, after eight years of practicing ceramics, I am slowly realising that the real work is in discovering who I am inwardly and being one with that; unruffled by life’s ups and downs, and living with a quiet steadfastness, faith and joy. Ceramic practice is a means and only one aspect of this whole.

Priya Sundaravalli

AB: What’s next? What are you exploring at your new residency? 

PS: I am now in the Netherlands on a 3-month ceramic residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre. My proposal was about exploring ceramics through a piece of Dutch music for four pianos, the ‘Canto Ostinato’ composed by the late Simeon ten Holt. It is a piece of music which feels like the heavens are dropping upon earth with no beginning and no end.

Simultaneously, I am exploring new ceramic surface treatments using organic materials, as well as ceramics mounted on natural fabric. 

When I return back, I will be participating in two pottery markets: New Delhi in December and, my home town Auroville in January 2019.

AB: And, what made you choose to live in Auroville?

PS: The simplest answer would be - it was my soul's choice - as there is no logic to it.

Although I grew up in Madurai, I was born in Pondicherry (1969), and every summer used to visit my maternal grand parents who lived there. Auroville was unknown us all. This ignorance continued even after I began to consider the Mother and Sri Aurobindo as my spiritual gurus.

It was only when I left India for higher studies in the USA that I first heard about Auroville. During my first week of landing there, I met a young woman who had lived there. When she spoke about the place, it filled me with an irrational delight. I was 23 and there was an immediate recognition that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. So as soon as my studies were done, I packed up and moved back to India to live in Auroville.

It has been 16 years since, and it feels like I have been through a few lifetimes already. Auroville is my home and sanctuary, and it is helping me grow into myself.

— Jaideep Sen