Training at Terra Crafts

Terra Crafts is a small-scale terra-cotta production pottery based in Eroor, a suburb of Kochi in Ernakulam district.

We were on a whimsical hunt for a famous Malayali potter named Jayan when we arrived at Terra Crafts. A short conversation later we had been accepted to spend one month learning at Terra Crafts. We knew the moment we walked into the pottery that it was the place to be. It is spacious, well organised, furnished with a full team consisting of 3 fully trained potters (each with different skill sets), one artist (who works largely on murals), 6 women who do everything from mould work to finishing the various objects (carving and texturing details etc.), one very active overseer who participates wherever he is needed, one spray painter who is skilled at creating great textures with paint on the ready wares and a 3 man team of assistants who recycle the clay, load, fire and unload the kiln and also help wherever support is needed (they are the oil that keeps this machine moving smoothly). It certainly looked by far the best maintained and well operated pottery we had seen in India and we were glad to have stumbled into it. We quickly took residence in the basement of Jayan’s home to begin our apprenticeship at 9 am on Monday.

On the first day we were instructed to create paperweights with the lumps of clay: we were permitted to make any shape we liked as long as no opening was involved. At the end of the day Jayan quickly assessed our work and decided we were ready to move to the following task, which was to throw the same form. We spend several days throwing cylinders. Then with Jayan’s instruction we began to throw the same form and size. By the end of the first week, we had achieved new ground: making cylinders of the same size. Jayan’s motto is to keep practicing. “If a task begins to bore you, do something else but don’t stop throwing: use all the working hours for practice,” he told us.

The following week we made more forms of our choice and continued to repeat them in the same size: bowls, bottles, narrow necked vases. And when we felt we needed a change we tested our skills by making a teapot. By week 3 we graduated to lessons in throwing big. There is no scale or measuring tool that gives you an indication of the weight of the clay – we just wedged what we thought were big lumps of clay and started. It’s a whole new ball game to throw big: different hand movements when opening and different muscles used. Jayan teaches with great flexibility: he is happy to show you how he throws but ultimately we have to learn the movements and feeling for ourselves individually and that varies: there is no exact standard. We threw large objects for 2 weeks, with clay lumps approximately ranging from 3-6kgs and we threw as many shapes as we could: narrow necked vases, moon shaped vessels, bowls, and plates. When we weren’t throwing we were practicing the delicate art of turning our pots to perfection. With all the organic matter in the clay it was also a skill we had to quickly learn.

It was an interesting experience because the terra cotta used requires the addition of sand to make it more durable. It lacked strength and also needed to be thrown thick – which was most certainly a lesson in itself. The advantages of learning at Terra Crafts were many: there was an endless supply of terracotta for use; they wood fired their downdraft kiln weekly allowing us to make and bake many things; there was even a small emergency kiln for things that were instantly needed; there were four (including Jayan) potters with different abilities to learn from; there were enough wheels for each person and they had ample knowledge in mural art and mould work when we needed a change from the wheel.

In four weeks we achieved unthinkable skills. Undoubtedly, it is Jayan’s strategy of a full workday, from 9 – 5, of continuous practice that helped us achieve this level of personal success.

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