June 5, 2016
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As I pottered about
A milk jug, a saucer, ordinary pieces of earthenware but each carrying the memory of a place visited, a friendship made
I’ve been at it for so many peripatetic years now it no longer registers as a conscious activity. Until a cousin stood in front of my glass-fronted cupboard and exclaimed: what lovely ceramic pieces you bring back from your travels!
I looked anew and realised that the contents of the cupboard comprised a travelogue all their own. Each piece of pottery is an interesting chip in the mosaic of my travel history. So much more than mere receptacles for soup, cheese or sliced fruit, the pottery-to-place connect is a visceral one.
Take the small jug, its surface glazed a shiny deep blue (blue is a recurring theme in my collection), with the Celtic spiral on the front. Just your average pretty jug and one that is, in fact, a bit small for convenience. But every time I pick it up and run my fingers over its fluted rim, what I remember is how intensely enigmatic Ireland is. Dolmens with capstones, mysterious stone circles, ancient burial sites, pagan wishing wells, monasteries and Fairy Rings… out there, the past shrouded in the veil of the unknowable.
The small shallow bowl with two lemons painted bright on the inside takes me back to a shallow cave up in the Sacromonte hills of Granada in Spain, where we watched the gitanos (gypsies) dance. There are copper and brass utensils hanging from the rafters and on the walls pots, pans, woks, lotas , utensils similar to what we see back at home. Not surprising, given that the early Romani gypsies were pilgrims, mostly Hindus, who wandered from Rajasthan, Sindh and Punjab over Persian lands and beyond, to Europe, back in 800 AD. The desi connection is unmistakable, in the colour of skin, the bone structure of face, the hair.
Not all of my pieces have a clear provenance attached, though. There is an ancient container with stripes of pale blue, the stopper long gone. This one recalls a stately old manor, my grandmother’s house in Palghat, with lush mango, sapota , almond and cashew trees in the sprawling compound. I can see the scrolled oak dining table where we would all sit down for breakfast, chattering like magpies while the cooks brought in plates of soft idli s, crisp vada s, bowls of spicy sambar , mounds of coconut chutney, the meal winding up with heaps of fried bananas, ghee drizzled over them. Days of a hibiscus-scented innocence, days that will never come back.
The faux Ming ceramic dish transports me to a side street in Xi’an. Awed into temporary silence after having seen the magnificent Terracotta Warriors, we were scouting for a place to eat, when a man passed by, pushing a cart heaped with bowls and dishes and the ubiquitous teacups. My friend and I fell upon the cart, haggling with that peculiar Indian enthusiasm that seemed not in the least foreign to the Chinese cart-man. Suffice it to say, the deal left all three parties quite happy.
An ocatgonal plate sitting at the back of the cupboard is a Delft from Amsterdam that could easily pass off as Chinese pottery. As I later discovered, although the Dutch potters referred to their earthenware as porcelain, it was actually a cheaper version of the real Chinese porcelain, made from a clay mixture covered with a tin glaze. Eventually and inevitably, Chinese potters started making ‘delftware’, but in full porcelain, to export back to Europe!
The wooden long spoon with the gorgeous bright red ceramic scoop at the end is a hark-back to a makan(food) trail that ended at the fabled Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore and a mouthwatering dish ofchar kway teow , rice noodles fried with chilli, garlic, bean sprouts and fish cakes in a dark sweet sauce.
I had gone to the centre after a week’s worth of fine-dining in the city-state and while certainly not dissing delicious food served in impeccable surroundings, it’s the street food places that give Singapore its delectable gastronomic reputation. The orange rustic dish is from Lyon, the gourmet paradise where I started a lifelong relationship with Saucisson de Lyon, that amazing sausage. The beige stockpot I bought after eating the world’s best lasagna near the glittering waters of Lago Maggiore in Stresa. The emerald green platter was acquired after much sassy banter with a fez-capped local in Istanbul’s truly Grand Bazaar.
I use all the pieces in the cupboard; all but the garlic press from Marseilles which really was an impulse buy and which deftly tears one’s fingernails off when used.
My favourite piece? A very old, white porcelain sauceboat I chanced upon in Cologne. The handle creaks every time I use it, so I rarely do.
Besides these, there’s a red jug from the haat at Binnaguri in north Bengal, a fascinating weekly market stacked with local veggies and parachute cloth but also Chinese silks and lace undies from the smuggler’s market at Dhulabari, Nepal, just across the border. There is an Andretta stone pie plate that I picked up in a charming village in Himachal Pradesh. And the jolt of sunshine next to it is a sandstone bowl from Jaisalmer, the colour forever putting me in mind of the Sonar Kella.
Yes, I will suffer if I have to visit a place with no pottery or ceramic ware. But then, I have no immediate plans of visiting either of the Poles in the near future.