Sometime in August last year, Manisha and I went through a series of one-line messages to each other to find a date when we were both free to meet for lunch. Two days before we were to meet though, I had to cancel. I had dislocated my elbow. My right arm, I wailed to her. What if it never worked normally again? How would I make pots? “I am paranoid about my hands & legs,” she wrote back “…jodi kichu hoye jaaye taholey kaaj ki kore korbo!!! [How will I work if something happens to them?] That December, we were sitting in the sun outside her barsaati studio, and I was gazing with distaste at my hands, which were rough and knobbly with being constantly in cold water and clay. She noticed and said, “We don’t have beautiful hands, but they make beautiful things.”
She knew the place of beauty in art is a tricky one. It is easy to be dismissive of works that are beautiful as being not sufficiently deep. In the world of high art, if a work did not come with an incomprehensible paragraph describing what it was trying to do, it was not serious. To be the maker of beautiful things was not enough. The equivalent in the world of fiction, which I inhabited, was to be labelled a “good storyteller”. So we exchanged a fair number of rueful, heartfelt notes on this subject.
The first half of last year, Manisha was thinking constantly and feverishly about what she wanted to do. She was getting ready for a major exhibition with former students of the Golden Bridge Studio, Pondicherry, where she too had learned much of her ceramics. Like any student worth her salt (or clay), she had grown away from her training and created a language of her own. She worried about how her work would sit beside those of her peers and teachers.
Around this time, she was alone in her studio throwing porcelain bowls, when a friend of hers called, attacking someone else’s ceramics as “merely attractive”. It shattered the peace of her morning, but immediately replaced her diffidence with certainty. “Deep in one's heart one is not apologetic,” she wrote. “Alone in my studio, throwing those porcelain bowls....trying to achieve the delicate lip......I was lost in a world of my own…at this point of time I am joyous just making a beautiful thing.....damn the meaning! I am sure it also has a validity, a reason for being.....even without a meaning.”
Two of Manisha’s ceramic installations are on the covers of books published by Permanent Black. Although artists are extremely protective about their work, she did nothing to dominate the designing of the covers. She knew how suffocating it is to have anyone breathing down your neck when you’re trying to make something. “You have complete freedom,” she wrote, reminding me only that “There is the plug and wire showing on the left side of the image, can you Photoshop it out?” As we looked at photographs of her works, she remembered how deeply she had been involved in photography, like her oldest brother. It made her dream up a new kind of installation, combining ceramics and photographs. That was what she would do next, she said.
It was when I was working on those book covers that I realised how complex and intriguing her ceramics were. They were, in fact, full of meaning. They spoke without words of the themes in those books. If Manisha was aware of this she did not say so. She was an outlier in many ways and her lack of pretentiousness, so unusual in the world of art, is embodied in these works. They remind me of Sheila Dhar quoting the Queen of Tonga’s profound words: “I just Be-s.” Manisha’s exquisite seed-pod bowls and her folds of porcelain that look like shells or waves: they just Be-s.
It was such happiness to Just Be with Munu. To sit in her studio and watch her forcing her students to think -- harder! To drink the dark, strong coffee her brother made, and eat her home-baked cakes. To absorb all the learning she had picked up over years of work and yet was so generous about sharing. To think up hairbrained schemes, mostly deep in the night, to do things and go places. The last such plan was an expedition to Tamil Nadu to see their gigantic terracotta horses. I was all fired up about them, having just read an article in Ceramics Monthly. “Been there, been there, seen it,” she messaged back. “These are the Ayyanar horses. Look awesome in real life. Can go again!”
REMEMBERING MANISHA BHATTACHARYA, Potter
(died 1 September 2015)