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Spinning the WHEEL

Sharada plans to expand into ceramic jewellery, which sells fast and can support the business



Sharada Gopalan at the wheel in her studio — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

"WHEN I tell people what I do," says Sharada Gopalan, a professional potter, "they always say yes... but what else? What do you do?" Where's the visiting card? Where's the office cubicle? Where are the regular timings?

Sharada's equivalent of an office cubicle comes at the end of a long drive out from the city.

Leaving behind the jostling crowds and manic buses of Banashankari, you get on the Kanakapura Main Road, shaded by large leafy trees embracing it, with the B.R. Hills a faded blue in the distance.

Turning off the main road, the dirt track gets bumpier and the landscape gets more dramatic. City noises give way to the sound of the wind and the occasional motorbike shudders in the distance. Cramped huts morph in to generous farmhouses and then, set back from the road is Sharada's shed.

You can recognise it from the large brick kiln outside and damp grey pots drying in the sun. Inside, the pots are laid out in neat rows on the floor and bits and pieces for the jewellery she hopes to start making soon are protected beneath a plastic sheet.

Sharada has been using this shed for the past one-and-a-half years to make her pottery. Mostly interested in what she calls "functional pottery", she makes tableware and other utilitarian items for everyday use, which she supplies to 100 ft., Kahawa, and a store in Chennai.

Sharada decided she wanted to get into fine arts after her 12th standard from The Valley School and applied for various design courses. Finding these too competitive and realising they would focus on aspects of pottery like sculpture which didn't interest her, she zeroed in on Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry. The school was started by an American couple 25 years ago, and their efforts are considered the reason why Pondicherry now triggers an immediate association with pottery.

The course teaches the basics of pottery and studio set-up over two years, besides inculcating intensity, and imparting lessons in form — it was perfect... except that the waiting period was two years.

The couple running the school are keen to only accept those who are truly passionate about pottery. Sharada was determined to study there, and decided to wait out the two years, taking up some other pottery in the interim.

Discovering work in Maharashtra, she found herself in Bhadravati village, barely a speck on any map, where an elderly Gandhian had organised villagers into making low-fire ceramics. Sharada was quite prepared to rough it out here, and went back to Pondicherry to tell them to hold a seat for her since she had found a way to pass two years.

But when the founder of Golden Bridge, Ray Meeker heard what she was willing to go through to get into his course, he jumped the queue to admit her.

After the course, Sharada helped set up the Art Village at The Valley School before heading to the UK.

A world of pottery vastly different to what she had been exposed to in India opened out for her at the college she taught at. "There was a fully equipped studio," she remembers. "They even had a computerised kiln where you key in the temperature and take out the pots when they cool down. Coming back to India was a bump. You really get back to roots, the clay would melt and had to be tested out and there is no standardised material."

But with her savings, Sharada managed to keep afloat the first year. She also got herself a basic degree in English Literature, saying: "I needed that paper saying I was a graduate", although, unusually, it was her parents who asked why she wanted a degree at all.

Sharada now has the infrastructure to take on a few students, mostly people who have had to wait to enter Golden Bridge. "The students are nice for company," Sharada says. "They don't interrupt work and I have the infrastructure for a few of them. Initially I was apprehensive about teaching, but once I got into it, I began to enjoy it."

Sharada admits that it's easier for her to manage since she lives with her parents. She plans to expand into ceramic jewellery, which sells fast and can support the business. What she earns supports her pottery in the long-term, but for people who want to be completely independent, she suggests starting their own production facility or teaching.

As for all the sceptics who wonder how a potter can sustain herself, Sharada is clear: "I enjoy my job," she says. "You're your own boss, you can choose your pace of work, there's lots of job satisfaction. There are umpteen challenges along the way, but that's part of it. I enjoy what I'm doing."

Watching the wet clay gather shape effortlessly under her fingers on the quickly rotating wheel, the concentric circles forming perfect rings... it's hard to disagree.

Sharada Gopalan can be contacted on sharadagopalan@hotmail.com

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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