The artisan starts
off with three moulds: base, middle portion, and top. The moulds are placed in
a three-tier wooden box which is stuffed both inside and outside with fine
clay. It is left to dry, after which the moulds are taken off and molten brass
poured inside. They leave it to rest. Within minutes the brass takes shape.
What emerges is the lota, the timeless vessel, a marvel of design and physics.
Like a good story, it contains a beginning, middle, and end—parts which make
the whole, parts which come together to contain worlds in themselves.
It’s the one for the ages—and for the sages. It’s a gift that keeps on pouring. The lota is as much about itself as about us: a genius of everyday and all day; a perfect example of integration of form and function.
Objects and things surround our lives. They reflect the attitudes of the moment as they are re-imagined in clay, brass, copper, steel, whatever the material. We are born into everyday objects. In this era of planned obsolescence of objects and products—cartons, shrink wrap, buttons, boxes, toothbrushes, shoes, chappals, fridges, televisions, houses, buses, clothes, zippers, rubber bands, hooks, knives, hangers, computers, mobile phones, tables, sunglasses, desk lamps, chairs, fans, vacuum cleaners, kitchen utensils–the unobtrusive lota survives.
It remains an essential, its form and purpose uncompromised.
Whether it is on the heads of people in religious processions: draped in cloth, smeared with vermilion and turmeric and half-filled with water, an inverted coconut in its mouth; on the kitchen shelf; or in the bags of pilgrims, wanderers, mendicants, and vagabonds, it sits serene and composed, Buddha-like. It is a comforting, solid presence, a sage-like witness to the everyday ephemera of life.
It’s a gift that keeps on pouring. The lota is as much about itself as about us: a genius of everyday and all day; a perfect example of integration of form and function.
No one knows how long it has been around, but it showed up in the Indus Valley sites—Harappa and Mohenjodaro—the crucibles of civilisation. Earlier, too, perhaps. It outlasted and outlasts us by triumphing over time with different names and with a variety of spouts and handles. Although it serves and serves and serves some more, the lota is taken for granted—so routine, so commonplace, that we don’t notice it. Unless, of course, you’re a student attending your anthropology class in material culture.
[he lota wears its
physics lightly, its centre of gravity, tight; inside, not outside. The
geometry of its gleaming form is a thing of beauty. You can place it on an
uneven surface but it mostly remains stable due to its base; you can carry it
with your fingers, or a rope around its neck; its lip enables you to pour and
drink from it. But for it, all of us would have been drinking water with cupped
“The functional aesthetic is its culture—a culture of providing a service with such efficiency and grace,” says Professor Ashoke Chatterjee, design educationist and former director of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, (NID). “The beauty of its form makes its use such a pleasure, and its usefulness is its true beauty.”
“Design is all about lifting the functional aesthetics of the products and systems we use,” says Chatterjee, “Aesthetics is therefore part of function, not just an addition to it. It is the integration of form and function that can bring a sense of pleasure which gives objects value. Sometimes, the aesthetic itself is the function, as in jewellery for example, but then again, the piece of jewellery must also work well when it is worn. Or in a kolam created each morning at the doorstep, with its own clear function of blessing and visual delight. Again, an integration of form and function.”
You may wax lyrical over the porcelain cup’s elegant grace, relish the reflex of the tumbler (this came from the Middle East, says Satyapal, assistant professor of anthropology, Andhra University), gush about the plate’s plenitude, marvel at the spoon’s moxie. But the lota breathes life into everyday objects.
Not because it’s more of anything—holder, utilitarian, functional—compared to other objects, but simply because it has such ordinariness that—perhaps—makes it transcend the ordinariness all great objects have. Which makes you lean forward with joy to take hold of it, feel it, fill it and carry it. Also, throw it at the face of someone you’re cut up with.
Many a design, here meaning structure or pattern, is inspired by mythological symbolism. The objects cannot be divorced from the land they’re situated in, and the lota can be said to truly be a thing of the soil, as in son of the soil.
Both in its form and function, the lota has transcended the moment and spoken to others across the borders of cultures and civilisations, perspectives and time. In all its protean shapes and functions, it could well be a realisation of the idea of fecundity and versatility. It’s both pop and ancient.
“The lota is not a big vessel and it holds the required amount of water. You don’t waste anything,” says D. Prabhakara Sharma, a Sanskrit scholar, and former principal of Oriental College, Kovvur, Andhra Pradesh “While you do kalash puja, you welcome the devata into the water, and worship. Our tradition is everyday objects are sacred.”
Professor Lalit Kumar Das of the industrial design programme at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, says “The lota is the carrier of the value of asceticism.”
In diverse African traditions, people believe that objects have power. And certain objects act as intermediaries between human and spirit worlds. Our culture too has sublime expressions of such experiences in our scriptures—of objects as expressions of Shakti. Chaterjee refers to “A. K. Ramanujam’s Speaking of Shiva and there are some wonderful verses of old Tamil celebrating objects as gods.”
Haku Shah, a great painter, cultural anthropologist, and an authority on tribal art and culture, has written about the lota in tradition, and the reverence the tribes have for everyday objects.
Just as Indian
philosophy was born of the search for solutions to life’s problems, many of the
old Indian artefacts and objects were answers to the real needs of people who
are poor and often illiterate, but whose eye for design was sophisticated. “The
hallmark of our design is harmony with nature,” Das says. Many a design, here
meaning structure or pattern, is inspired by mythological symbolism. The
objects cannot be divorced from the land they’re situated in, and the lota can
be said to truly be a thing of the soil, as in son of the soil.
After independence, the government of India understood the relation between industrial and economic development with modern design. The government invited Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh, and Charles and Ray Eames, the great post-World War Two industrial designers, to a design a training programme to develop “small industries and to stop the decline in design and quality standards of consumer goods.” They were the founding spirits of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, and their India Report is a classic in design literature.
In their three-month stay in India, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, they held discussions with different sections of people, and observed the life in India, and they gushed about the lota as the greatest example of good design and as a symbol of “service, dignity and love” which is the purpose of all design.
“Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India,” Charles and Ray Eames wrote in their report, “the lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful. The village women have a process which, with the use of tamarind and ash, each day turns this brass into gold.”
They posed the mother of all questions: “How would one go about designing a lota?”
The lota has small capacity in terms of water or food, not storing more. You offer water, milk or food to guests in that. The kamandulu has the same capacity as the lota.
In their consideration of “factor after factor” of the lota—the size, strength and gender of the hands that hold it; the way it is to be transported; the centre of gravity when full and empty; the fluid dynamics; the sculptor; the structure as related to rhythmic walking and standing at the well; the relation of mouth to volume; the size and texture of inner contours; heat transfer; how pleasant does it feel; how does it sound; its possible material; cost in terms of working; cost in terms of ultimate service; the kind of an investment the material provides as product; as salvage; how will the material affect the contents; how will it look as the sun reflects off; how does it feel to possess it; to sell it; to give it—they marvelled at its versatility.
“Of course, no one man could have possibly designed the lota. The number of combinations of factors to be considered gets to be astronomical—no one man designed the lota but many men over many generations. Many individuals represented in their own way through something they may have added or may have removed or through some quality of which they were particularly aware,” they said in their report.
Also the lota, in its vernacular expression, provided an efficient solution to the unspectacular, if intractable, problem of holding something in small quantities. “Thus,” as Chatterjee puts it, “the lota can be said to have led to the introduction of the professional designer to India!”
Professor H. Kumar Vyas, founder of the Faculty of Industrial Design at NID, in his essay “Design the International movement with Indian Parallel”, says: “The pot form might have started its life as one of the most useful objects at the dawn of the civilisation. But the interesting thing is that its present form has not remained merely that of a carrier of water. Many more functions have been added as more needs were felt in relation with the device.
“Apart from fetching, carrying, and storing water there have been many uses to which the Indian pot form in various sizes has been put. Here is a short, not necessarily complete, checklist: Apart from water, it is a carrier for many kinds of liquids, semisolids and even solids such as oil, milk, jaggery and all kinds of grains. Pots are specially made for keeping small objects, clothes and jewellery: for example, dowry pots of Gujarat and Rajasthan; water coolers from terracotta material. The porosity of the material allows a certain amount of water to seep out and evaporate to cool the surface; a smaller size pot used as a jug to dispense water or other liquids; ‘tumbler’ for pouring water during a bath; cooking pot and boiler; traveller’s handy water carrier; milk churner; disposable cup; also disposable package for eatables, mainly sweets; musical instruments because of the resonant sound its hollow form emits; several symbolic uses.”
In addition to its
everyday functionality, the lota is part of a larger culture. Das says, “It’s
all connected, the idea is to live in harmony with nature.” Also, another idea
inherent in this is taking only the minimum from nature. The lota has small capacity
in terms of water or food, not storing more. You offer water, milk or food to
guests in that. The kamandulu has the same capacity as the lota.”
It has an everyday design and a timeless aesthetic of living in harmony with nature, a design philosophy that has many examples.
“Consider the cot. It’s not a modern day heavy bed. It’s light and portable. You can keep it inside and take it outside. You can watch stars outside while lying down on it. If you look at the items in our culture, they exist in symbiotic relationship with all life. The optimising criteria is how a human being can fulfill his or her needs with the least amount of burden on environment. How we can grow with the least. It’s a way of looking at things,” says Das.
Everyone was worried about increasing population in the 1950s. Counter-intuitively, we survived. Das says, “We’re taking so much less from nature; we’re sharing more among our sisters and brothers. Bigger families, less resources, more sharing. Our games too were so designed to be available to all, poor and rich. Walking barefoot connected us to the earth. The sari has the least impact on environment, maximum utility at the end of its life, accommodates everybody, and is wrapped in different styles. It’s designed for diversity of expression. Our medicine, massage system, everything in our culture is for physical, intellectual and spiritual growth.”
In his thought-provoking essay, “Culture as the Designer”, he says, “One finds many other products, cotton durries, mats, patra (low wooden seat), cooking vessels, transport vehicles, thela (manually pulled cart), bullock carts, maruta (the home-made widely used in rural north India)… the list can be long.
“The emphasis always is on improvisation, often extending the potentialities of human being rather than the machine, doing with less material, extending the product life, finding new uses for the product. It is a different way of looking at products that characterises the Indian approach to design. It ranges from Jugaad to extremely subtle synthesis. Either way, it is an approach not very amenable to a design environment where the designer is set on a pedestal and bathed in the spotlight in the hope that society will hold him in awe and internalise the design into the culture.
“The designer in traditional India is not treated as a demigod. He is only an element in a cultural team. Innovation per se has little meaning. It must contribute to human development of ever-larger numbers. Overuse of products, overcrowding, is not the issue to work against. Just to keep the wheels rolling is the essence of living.”
The lota and other objects can be said to have kept the wheels running. We interact with all sorts of everyday objects. Chatterjee says, “It is that interaction between user and a product that design can enhance. So every time you use a well-designed object, be it a lota or a Nokia phone or the Metro or a sari, an engagement takes place which should enhance the quality of the human environment–and enhancing that quality is the purpose of design.”
It’s not that we
don’t treasure everyday objects. Just visit eBay and see the enthusiasm with
which people bid for old cameras, shoes, sneakers, what not. We are all
hunter-gatherers at heart in our own ways, with a disclaimer that, like all
generalisations, this too sounds off-kilter. Our stuff is owner’s delight and
family members’ despair.
It’s the interaction with everyday objects, the tales we tell ourselves around them, the memories associated with them that is the stuff of everyday life. Long-gone things have restorative powers if we re-engage with them.
Arranged, ordered, curated and cared for, they animate the spaces of museums. And they’re art forms unto themselves.
The Crafts Museums in New Delhi, Pune and Calcutta are known for their collections of domestic objects. The Vechaar Utensils Museum in Ahmedabad, a part of the Vishala village restaurant, houses a collection that celebrates everyday objects of predominantly Gujarati origin. O. P. Jain’s Sanskriti Foundation in Delhi has three museums: textiles, terracotta, and everyday art.
The everyday art museum exhibits, in its own words, “objects of use in daily life pertaining to children; the art of writing; the culture of hookahs, chillums, betel-leaf, and areca nut; weights and measures; kitchen utensils and implements; women’s toiletries; lamps and incense burners; ritual accessories and cultic images for temple and domestic worship. The museum concerns itself with preservation of some of the finer, more refined aspects of India’s everyday life until the recent past, now threatened by extinction.”
The late Komal Kothari’s Broom Project outside Jodhpur is a testament to local knowledge, its practices, biodiversity and larger ecosystem. Gita Ram, who works for artisans through the Crafts Council of India, Chennai, says, “Creativity has evolved over generations. Take brooms, for example. The way the broom is styled depended on the fibres or grasses available. The short grasses were plaited on end and rolled in a spiral to add the length. I have a bird with a long tail made by a broom maker in Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, winnows used for cleaning grain were shaped depending on the palm or bamboo used.”
Why the broom?
Madan Meena, a visual artist and researcher, the author of two books, Joy of Creativity and Nurturing Walls, and a member of the project, says “The Broom Project was a window to the cultural study of Rajasthan from a different perspective. It opened up many issues related to ecology, hygiene, trade, caste discrimination, myths and beliefs, etc. The study into its culture led us to map Rajasthan in different cultural dimensions.”
Another example is the collection of hand fans.
Jatin Das, of the J. D. Centre of Art in Delhi and Bhubaneshwar, has a collection of over 6500 pankhas (hand fans) which is another example of the fascinating art of everyday things. In his collector’s note, he says, “Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable.” The collection has fans from not only the subcontinent but also from China, Japan, Indonesia, Africa, and the Middle East.
In his note, he continues, “Over the years, my passion became a collection that dictated systematic research, documentation and archiving. It expanded to include paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs and poems on the subject, from the colonial period to the present. Systematic and methodical accessioning was followed by written and photo documentation. A bibliography was compiled, along with glossary of names for fans in different languages. We also travelled to many parts of India and made short documentary films on the craft of fan making.”
In simplicity and grace, as in the lota, the everyday aesthetic lives on whether it’s on kitchen shelves, in the corners of rooms, or in the attics, left to time and grime, scarred and mottled.
Fifteen years ago,
Vasant Hari Bedekar, a now-retired professor of museology at M. S. University,
Baroda, visited his sister's house in the Revdanda part of Chaul, near Thane.
This visit let to a serendipitous discovery and the introduction of the concept
of ecomuseums in India.
When Bedekar was wandering around the village, he found the remnants of a fort. To his amazement, he found another small fort in Korlai on a small mount, a couple of kilometres away. They were basically look-out posts, to see who was coming and going along the coast. Still more surprises awaited him in Korlai. Acquaintances told him that a group of people in the village spoke a unique language called Creole: a mixture of indigenous languages including Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati, and a foreign language.
“In Korlai, it’s a mixture of Konkani, Marathi and Portuguese. They converse in Marathi outside their homes, and in Creole among themselves and in their homes. That’s their specialty, their uniqueness,” says Badekar on the phone, from his home in Baroda.
The region—Chaul, Revdanda, Korlai—was where the Portuguese established their domain and their influence extended up to Daman along the coast. Badekar says, “Chaul was then an attractive city. Ships loaded and reloaded. Sailors stayed here and married local women. Thus was born Creole. When Maratha kings took over Chaul, the later generations shifted to nearby Korlai.”
As a professor of museology, Badekar felt that the place was a living museum. He was impressed by the diversity: Chaul, a largely Muslim area with a port and rich maritime history and trade; Revdanda, predominantly Hindu with a smattering of Muslims and Jews (the second-oldest synagogue exists there; the first one is in Cochin) with a rich heritage of monuments; and Korlai, predominantly Christian, Roman Catholic to be precise, and with the cultural heritage of Creole and people.
“They’re a peculiar community of about 2000 people. They have different ways of clothing, cooking, song, dance, spices. They have a different lifestyle.” To study their different ways of love and life and to explore the identity of these people, Badekar started a unique project in historiography and museology in India. “It’s ecomuseology,” he says, “It’s not a museum of objects, but of people and their life. Things are secondary. It’s community-specific.”
The ecomuseology concept originated in France, and spread throughout the world. You take a museum to the people, not people to the museum. The community itself is the museum, with people living out their age-old traditions, preserving and feeling proud of their unique identity, remembering their ancestors, and sharing and spreading their tangible and intangible wisdom and heritage among their descendants.
“We can also call it a network museum. It’s not at one place, but spread across the area where the community lives,” explains Badekar. “In fact, you can start it anywhere, with several points connected. One such point or room is for systematic documentation, the next one is for dress, the next one for songs, the next one for religion, the next one for cooking, and so on. So as you wander and see, you interact with people, with volunteers stationed at each point, you talk with people, and learn their way of life. It’s a living thing.”
The project took off with the help of a priest and a few volunteers in the region. In due course, the priest was transferred. The collected things in different points—“you don’t buy things in this, you borrow things, and exhibit them,” he says—were distributed. Due to old age, he couldn’t supervise the project. Only a fragment of his original vision remains.
“Our People of India Project lists 6000 unique communities in India. In mainstream museology, they’re overlooked and neglected. Through ecomuseums, we can preserve all this, preserve the environment and ecology of the region. We can place it in the context of the actual life of people,” says Badekar.
The author of New Museology for India, Badekar remains hopeful of such museums. “What is unique in Korlai is they want to continue their traditions, they want to preserve them. They’re proud of their identity. So more volunteers may come forward.”