Tag Archives: India

A Project With Ektara

My work on the Elements project really whetted my appetite for more exploration in creating temporary, collaborative sculpture in which the viewer’s participation becomes an integral part of the work.  I began developing ideas for new projects while observing preparations at Kumartuli for Saraswati Puja.  Then after returning from my trip to Molela and Nathdwara, I searched Kolkata for potential venues and partners.

Curator and social entrepreneur Nandita Palchoudhuri connected me with charitable organization Ek Tara, located in the Kolkata neighborhood of Topsia.  Thanks Nandita!!!


Ek Tara provides opportunities for education and vocational training for more than 500 children and women who reside in the Topsia and Tiljala area.

For our March 2015 project together, I created a four foot tall head in straw and bamboo.  In an exciting two-day workshop, fifty Ek Tara students gleefully and tenderly covered the large head form with imagery in clay.

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Working with fifty children on a project takes tremendous organization!  Not only were the wonderful Ek Tara  instructors and helpers on hand to smooth the process, but Fulbright-Nehru Student Scholar Julie Schofield‘s assistance was invaluable to me, as she entertained the children who were waiting to take their turn in working on the sculpture.

Fulbright-Nehru Scholar Julie Schofield with Ek Tara children

The sculpture’s title, Lucky Indian Forest, comes from the children. They had been asked to bring forth ideas for a title as they worked to build up the image-laden surface of animal figures and traditional designs, using clay press molds I created for them, and traditional sandesh molds from Kalighat.





What a great project!   Children and adults alike were enthusiastic and happy. The camaraderie was fantastic.  I hope to do many more projects like this one.

Lucky Indian Forest” Named by the children of Ek Tara
Children covering the straw and bamboo head with clay imagery.


“Lucky Indian Forest” at Gallery Sanskriti in April 2015.   Ambica Beri, gallerist, in center,  Anita Kanoi, Ek Tara trustee, on right.




Residency at Maihol House

How wonderful! In January I was invited to be part of an international group of ceramic artists who would  be working together at Maihol House, an artists’ residency center in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh.  Countries represented are India, Australia, Latvia, France, and the USA.

Maihol House is also the family home of Ambica Beri, who owns Gallery Sanskriti in Kolkata.  Ambica, a generous and nurturing soul as well as an avid supporter of the arts, sponsored all of us to participate in this wonderful residency.  She is also in the midst of opening another amazing residency center not far from Maihol House, called Art Ichol.

Maihol House


A twenty-three hour train ride later, I was met at the Maihar station by Kolkata ceramic artist Aditi Saraogi.   At Maihol House, I met three of the other invited artists, Anjani Khanna from Mumbai, and Eugenia Logovia and Anatoli Borodkin of Latvia, as well as Ambica Beri and her brand new assistant, Tanya Dutt.  The next day Eugenia and Anatoli and I set out to spend some time at the famous Khajuraho temples, as well as to rendezvous with the remaining two invited artists, Isabelle Roux of France and Sandra Black of Australia. (Khajuraho is one of the closer airports to Maihar.)



Most of the temples of Khajuraho were first built around 1000 years ago!  They are covered with beautiful carvings of animals, dancers, musicians, and of course, lovers. Khajuraho is famous for erotic carvings, however, as our guide informed us, and we could see for ourselves, less than 15 percent of the carvings were explicitly sexual.




DSC_0004_01Most of the temples have had some sort of reconstruction of over the last few hundred years.  The platform for this little temple was created with what looks like portions from many different temples, giving the effect of sculptural collage.

The next day we began our work at Sanskriti Ceramics.

Aditi working outside near the ceramics studio
Sandra Black, potter extraordinaire!


My lovely roommate for the residency, Anjani Khanna, in the midst of creating one of her yalis.
The fabulous Anatoli Borodkin!
Isabel takes a break from work on her gorgeous vessel forms
Eugenia near the studio pond


My new friend who lives in that pond, and was the inspiration for the sculptural platter below


After some intense days, we set our works out to dry, and Ambica took us to the Maihar Devi temple, which is dedicated to Sharada Ma, an aspect of Saraswati (goddess of knowledge, music and creative arts).


one amazing shrine on the side of the main temple

On the way back to Maihol House we stopped near some brick makers and their kilns to learn about the process.




kiln for firing clay bricks


The next day we went to the Maihar Music School for a wonderful concert of Indian classical music given by the school’s instructor.  We learned that this school is famous as the place where Ravi Shankar studied.


Enjoying wonderful music at the Maihar Music School


If these great experiences weren’t enough — Aditi worked with Devilal Patidar of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal to organize an international symposium at which we presented our works to a large and receptive audience.

bharat bhavan symp

Bhopal is a city that is very supportive of the arts, and we visited a number of beautiful museums, among them the astounding Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum.  Much thanks to Devilal for rolling out the red carpet for us all!

And then, too soon, it was time for me to say adios…..

A photo of our bisqued works laid out for an experimental woodfire. Eugenia’s lively elephants take front stage.

I had to leave the group a few days early, since my husband was flying to Kolkata for a long-awaited visit, and the return train ride would be at least twenty hours with the currently foggy weather conditions.  Nevertheless,  I left with many great memories!!  Much thanks to Ambica and Tanya, to Aditi for the invitation, Devilal, and to all of the other artists for the clayful camaraderie.  We shall meet again!



The Goddess of Knowledge

Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music and art, and is the daughter of Lord Shiva and Ma Durga.   In West Bengal, Saraswati is revered by schools and universities, because of the belief that she endows the worshipper with speech, wisdom and learning.

Saraswati Puja takes place this year in later January, so preparations of clay images at Kumartuli began in late December.   The energy at Kumartuli is much quieter than the frenzied activity of Durga Puja preparations, but there were a group of artisans in the neighborhood who were making some spectacular images!

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This image is 10-12 feet tall.
This image is about 14 feet tall.


Saraswati is either accompanied by or seated on a swan, and is dressed in white for purity.  In the images made at Kumartuli, she is mostly depicted with two hands that play a stringed instrument called the veena.  In the images where she has four hands, the other two hands will hold a rosary and a book.

Tiny Saraswati images.
Pair of life sized Saraswati figures placed as if conversing.



Saraswati is also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri.   Her early history is as a river goddess, and I saw a number of figures adorned with flowing, watery imagery.


Dilip Pal and his assistants were working on eleven commissioned Saraswati images during this time, ranging from two to four feet tall. The floor of Dilipda’s studio at the Shovabazar Rajbari was blanketed with straw, as assistant Netal Pal bent and wrapped and compressed the straw into voluptuous female forms.

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Small Saraswati pandal in the Kumartuli neighborhood.


A Dentist to Lions

Dilipda is preparing no less than five images for Jagadhatri  Puja, which is celebrated throughout West Bengal and parts of Odissa about one week after Kali Puja (late October to early November) and exactly one month after Durga Puja.

The courtyard outside of Dilip Pal’s Kumartuli studio, where he prepares images for Jagadhatri Puja.

Jagadhatri is considered to be a calm incarnation of Durga.  She is known as the “Holder of the World,” and it is believed that if Jagadhatri is not there,  the world will fall down!   The origins of Jagadhatri Puja are unclear.  One account is that the puja was founded by Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna.  Jagadhatri celebrations are observed today with great joy in Ramakrishna missions around the world.

Dilip Pal working on a Jagadhatri image at his Kumartuli studio, Kolkata

Today, Dilipda is amusing himself by repeatedly telling me that he is “The Dentist To Lions,”  as he finely sculpts each feline’s memorable dentition.  In researching Jagadhatri’s history and observing the images of many Kumartuli workshops,  I saw reference to both lions and tigers.



Priest performing rites at Jagadhatri Puja
Jagadhatri  image



In addition to being accompanied by a lion/tiger, the three-eyed Jagadhatri is described as being the color of the morning sun.  She holds a conch and a bow in her two left hands and a chakra and a five-headed arrow in her two right hands.




Kumartuli artisan at work on Jagadhatri image

Some of the Jagadhatri images depict the lion stepping upon the elephant demon, Karindrasura, who represents human pride/power.  According to Sri Ramakrishna, “Jagadhatri arises in the heart of a person, who can control the frantic elephant called mind.”

Straw Jagadhatri images-in-process at nighttime, Kumartuli.

Kumartuli – the second and third visits

With great excitement, I returned to Kolkata at the end of the first week of September, specifically to observe Dilipda and his assistants in the next stages of work on their Durga Puja sculptures at the Shovabazar Rajbari.


In the above photo, Dilipda’s assistant,  Netal Pal, is adding the second layer of smooth clay to this roughed-out form of Ganesha. You might remember from an earlier post that this Durga Puja tableaux of images had been started about a month ago, and had been given several weeks to slowly dry.

Below, Dilipda’s other assistant, Bishonal Pal, works on adding the second clay layer to the Durga form that is central to the entire tableaux, or .


When I returned the next afternoon, Netal Pal was sitting on the floor with a chunk of clay from which he was modeling the hands and feet for all of the figures.

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Then — Netal and Bishonal began to add the hands and feet to each figure, ending with Durga’s ten hands — and for me a magical energy filled the Rajbari.  I felt an intense need to stay and observe until Durga’s final hand was attached and secured to her tenth wrist.

IMG_0732Ganesha (above), now fully detailed and needing just one more hand!

IMG_2072Bishonal Pal works on Lakshmi and Netal Pal works on Kartik.

IMG_2078 Netal Pal works on Durga’s hands


In the above photo, Dilipda is working on refining the details of the images.  His images are structured in what several people have referred to as the “traditional” style.  However, regardless of the style in which the figures are rendered, most Durga Puja sculpture groupings have the following images (I’m listing them in bold from left to right):  Ganesha; Lakshmi; Durga; below Durga is her Lion, who along with Durga, is attacking Mahishasura, the Buffalo Demon; Saraswati, and Kartik.  Often Mahishasura will be emerging from a buffalo form (he is after all, half man and half buffalo).  Below is a photo of another Kumartuli work-in-process where the buffalo imagery is more apparent (under Mahishasura but not painted white).


Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik also have puja celebrations specifically dedicated to them at some point during the year. The timings for when the festivals take place are based on the positioning of the sun and moon, and not on a specific calendar date.  Timings are available for past, present and future years from websites such as http://www.drikpanchang.com/ .

Often referred to as Durga’s children:
Ganesha is the god of beginnings, good fortune, and the removal of obstacles;
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, love and prosperity;
Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, and the creative arts;
Kartik is the god of war.


In between my first and second visits to the image-makers of Kumartuli, I spent some time in Shantiniketan.  It’s a small, quiet (compared to Kolkata!) town about three hours by train from Kolkata, and it has become something of a second home destination for people wishing to take a break from the faster pace of the city.  There is a university there that was founded by the much-revered poet Rabindranath Tagore and his family.

As Santiniketan increased in size,  it grew up and around the beautiful villages of the indigenous Santhal people (one of the largest tribal groups throughout India).   Some of my favorite memories of my time there are of wandering around the small streets and alleys, discovering sculptures and murals covering houses, garden walls, and other structures, made of local terracotta clays, concrete, and tile mosaics.







Another favorite place nearby is the  Amar Kutir Society for Rural Development, which is a cooperative employing more than 450 people in the production of leather craft, batik textiles, and bamboo crafts.   You can check out their website here: http://amarkutir.com/ .


I visited Amar Kutir with the kind and generous Dr. Prasanta Ghosh, who besides being a former Fulbrighter to Washington D.C., is also the head of the Deparment of Social Work at Visva-Bharati University, Sriniketan, and a very active board member for Amar Kutir.  The Amar Kutir objective is the reorganization and rejuvenation of cottage and rural industries in handicrafts in the light of the ideals of self-help outlined by Rabindranath Tagore.  Tagore’s statue at the cooperative is below.

IMG_1740While I was in Shantiniketan, I purchased a book by Tagore called On Art & Aesthetics, a selection of his essays, lectures and letters.  I’ve been enjoying his manner of expression, and his ideas.  I’ll leave you with one quote from an essay entitled, “What is Art?,” to chew on before I head back to Kolkata for the next visit to Kumartuli.

“For Art, like life itself, has grown by its own impulse, and man has taken his pleasure in it without definitely knowing what it is.  And we could safely leave it there, in the subsoil of consciousness, where things that are of life are nourished in the dark.”

I welcome your opinions and comments!



Kumartuli – the first visit

On the morning of my second day in India, I had the great fortune to make my first trip to Kumartuli, which is a neighborhood of image-makers that is located slightly north of the center of Kolkata. Leading the way was the delightful Partha Dey, a Kolkata native and visual artist who was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Iowa a few years ago.

Our first stop was at the Shovabazar Rajbari (raj=king, bari=house) to meet Dilipda, a friend of Partha’s and the well-known sculptor who was currently in the process of creating the Durga  sculptural tableaux for the annual Shovabazar Rajbari’s Durga Puja celebrations.   He had already created his figures through the first stage of rough clay and straw formation, so we made arrangements for me to come back when Dilipda would begin his next stage of work.

Next we wandered through the main area of Kumartuli, with narrow streets such as this one,

typical kumartuli street/alley
lined with the workshops of many image-makers. Some workshops are tiny spaces, some are so narrow that we marveled at how the sculptors can gain any sort of perspective on the figures as they work! Look at the size of some these sculptures!

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In the time before I left for India, I had been concerned that I was arriving so close to the date of the celebrations that all of the images being made for Durga Puja would be so far underway that I would miss the chance to witness the whole process. Happily, these concerns were unfounded! Images were in every state of progress.

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The foundation of each image is built using split bamboo as a support structure, to which basic forms of straw wrapped with jute are added to make the rough figure.  Then a first layer of clay mixed with straw for strength, is added to the straw figure.  Once this dries, a second layer of smooth clay (in Kumartuli, this clay is taken from the banks of the Hooghly river) is added to the image to allow for more  refinement and detailing.  The photo below depicts this difference between clay/straw and smooth clay layers in two Ganesha images.


Workshops are everywhere, in houses, shops, street side, and even right next to the train tracks.



So at this point, some may ask, ”Who is Durga?”  And, “Why is all of this work being done on her behalf?”  IMG_1555

As described by Nilima Chitgopekar in The Book of Durga, “Myths associated with her (Durga’s) origin name her as Shakti—the female manifestation of cosmic energy—created by the fusion of the fierce energies of all the male gods and stronger than their combined strength.  She is the scourge of demons, as she is protectress of the realms of gods and humans.  Her anger is terrifying, her lust for victory in war overwhelming, on the battlefield she is merciless, even savage.  Yet she may just as easily transform into the consort of Shiva, daughter of the mountains, sister of the gods, or mother of her four children and of all mankind.”

I’m excited to learn more in the coming weeks before Durga Puja.


Welcome to the Dusty Clay Diaries.

My name is Cynthia Siegel, and I’m currently writing this blog from Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

So what’s the fuss about? In the fall of 2011, I participated in an artist’s residency at Sanskriti Kendra in Delhi, India. Through the Sanskriti Foundation’s Museum of Terracotta, I was introduced to a vast diversity of traditional Indian techniques and processes in working with clay. I became extremely interested in the clay sculptural traditions in which the completed artworks are intentionally left unfired. Often these works are made collaboratively in conjunction with religious festivals, and at the ending ceremonies they are submerged into a nearby river. The sculptures are intended to commemorate the cyclicality of life, to promote healing, to absorb negative energies, and/or to refresh the family or village community life.

These traditions are different than anything I have experienced before, and as a contemporary figurative sculptor, I felt myself drawn to the ethereal, fragile nature of these sculptural processes, and to the idea that after completion, these works are honored, appreciated, and subsequently restored to the earth. There is an enormous amount of creative labor expended to create these works, combined with the expectation of the works’ impermanence.

I became so curious about this image-making process that I applied for, and received, the Fulbright-Nehru Award that is funding this fabulous opportunity to live in India, in which I can learn about the image-makers of West Bengal, as well as create my own artwork and become involved in Kolkata’s contemporary arts scene.

My adventures continue…..