The China feeling: Mixed

China. Unlike my usual travel prep, there had been no reading of anything by Chinese authors or even reading up about the country I was going to. Just a lot of received doubts. What about food? vegetarian in China? you must be JOKING! WHAT? you’re leaving your daughter behind? for 6 weeks? You must be JOKING! But WHY are you doing this? and so on. I got on that plane.
We were to live and work in the little town of Fuping in the Shaanxi province. We arrived in batches. First seven, then two more, then two more, then six more and so on. Until all 18 of us were there. We got a tour of the studio space, which was a big room with lots of tables pushed up in one corner. We muttered about it not being all that clean and organized. We got a tour of the factory that the studio was attached to. Producing Chinese souvenirs, bricks and tiles. We murmured our appreciation. We got a tour of the museums. Ceramics from America, from several European countries, from Australia and New Zealand. We were suitably impressed. We went back to the hotel to connect with our families and tell them we had arrived safe etc. The internet connection was not cooperative. We made a big noise. We went back to the studio. Only tables. And some clay. What is this clay? what temp does it fire to? what colour? what about slips and glazes? what about bats and boards to work on? plastic to wrap the work? tools? buckets? Poor Melody. She made notes furiously in her little notebook… We’re Indian. We should’ve been more accomodating. Nevertheless. Melody made lists. Several lists. We grumbled and wafted around.
Eventually we did start work. A lot was lost in translation. But we did gradually get the things we wanted, either by scavenging around the factory yards, or begging or just plain harassing. We tested slips and glazes with an almost frantic urgency. The glazes were all bright and shiny. the slips too dry and dusty. Those slips that did seem to work on the smaller tests, look flat and dead on larger surfaces.
For reasons unfathomable to me, we had a lot of Chinese tourists visiting the studio everyday. On the weekends it was like being in a zoo. We had string barricades to keep the tourists out of our work spaces. They got too close anyway. Touching and picking up the work, once, even pinching bits of clay off of freshly made blocks for stamps. They talked loudly at us, they talked loudly into their phones while they stared at us, they talked loudly amongst themselves, they smoked and they took photographs incessantly! It was annoying, it was amusing, it never got offensive.
Punctuating our exploits in the studio were a few excursions. The letter inviting us to work at Flicam had mentioned that the powers that be hoped we would produce work informed by our “China feeling”. It was a few weeks before we realized that the China feeling would remain this mixed, ambiguous, amorphous feeling.
We visited Xi’an on Ramzaan. The muslim quarter was abuzz, festive. Food was everywhere. Women in headscarves rode tuk tuks on the streets, men and boys casually lounged about in the courtyards of the Great Mosque, not really listening to the morning sermon, but still a part of it. The mosque itself was a beautiful, living space. The streets around it full of character and life.

Eid prayers at the Great Mosque in Xi'an

Eid prayers at the Great Mosque in Xi’an



Breakfast in Xi’an

Strret side yummies


Street side treats

Old pot shop

Old pot shop

Cicadas in cane baskets!

Cicadas in cane baskets

The Calligraphy street with its shop after shop selling brushes and paper and ink, its little souvenir stalls was lovely and picturesque, meant for tourists like us. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was a big beautiful building, with a lot of new additions all around the old structure. It was impossible to tell if anything there had existed longer than a few years. In the evening, the square in front of the Pagoda came to life, with women dancing, almost identical to the several groups we saw in Fuping, young boys skating, young girls selling souvenirs for tourists and shiny toys for kids and the men, always smoking!
Our second excursion was to see the famous Terracotta Warriors. Even for an Indian, who has lived in India all her life, the crowds and noise were incredible. The Warriors stood in their “pit”, totally diminished and dwarfed by the monumental complex built around them, in true communist state proportions. Nothing in those pits looked remotely like it might be two thousand years old, like the warriors are said to be. It did not help, that on the way there, we’d crossed factories making life size replicas of the warriors. The museum had some nice pieces, if one could elbow ones way in and stand on a few toes to look at the display. Underwhelmed by the warriors and overwhelmed by the hype, I did still come away with a spark to take my work forward, as it gradually evolved from a concept I had been working on for almost a year.
The idea of a threshold. Of beginnings. Of departures. Of being on the brink. Neither inside nor out. It was such a potent concept, and when I first began working on it, almost a year ago now, it was still just a nascent idea that I was playing around with, trying to find a form that expressed it.


Threshold October 2012
Soon after, I left for Bali, working at the Gaya Ceramic Art Centre. On the one day that I took off and went sight seeing, the old stone steps of a temple threshold, worn with years of feet stepping across it jumped out at me more than anything else. I made some new forms. I enjoyed them, but there was more to explore.

Gyanagama Bali 1-001

Gyanagama Bali 2-001

The step forms fired in the Gyanagama at Gaya Ceramics Art Centre in Bali, November/ December 2012

chinnagama pondi 4-001

chinnagama pondi 5-001

The step forms fired in the Chinnagama at Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry, July 2013

The concept developed layers. Several paths to a destination. Is there a destination? or just the journey? the steps might not lead anywhere, but the walking leaves it’s mark..

Chinnagama Pondi 3-001


Chinnagama pondi 6-001


Step forms fired in the Chinnagama at Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry, July 2013

In the factory at Fuping the cloud pattern appeared on almost every other object. It appeared on the Mosque in Xi’an, on the Pagoda and on the Taoist temple. It was light, it travelled up to the skies… it appeared on my forms. Thresholds still, steps still. Journeys still. And then, of a sudden, stepping through the clouds, into the light? into the darkness? to be lost, to be found, to step into or step out of…



I left China feeling more than a little admiration for the sheer energy of her people, for the complete freedom from sexual harassment the women appeared to enjoy, for the fact that everyone we came across could read and write, for the fabulous public spaces that everyone has access to, for all those things that I wish we had in India. I also came away a lot more aware of all the things our two cultures share.

Complex, ancient cultures, both, with apparent freedom in different realms of life, and yet, I’m not sure if any of that freedom amounts to much in either case.


2 Responses to “The China feeling: Mixed”

  1. kaveri says:

    Thank you for this!
    Most interesting…. love the pieces and their evolution, but kind of saddened by the recounting of the “field trip” experience at the site of the terracotta warriors! :-(

  2. alina says:

    girl, really love the step forms, and the hyderabadi in china!

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