When it comes to the diversity of art and mediums in the limited cosmos of the Pakistani art scene, ceramic is a language that is often sidestepped and severely under-appreciated. However, there are a few key players who relentlessly use this medium, much to one‟s delight as it is not often that ceramic works occupy a gallery space in all their glory. A pioneer and a virtuoso in many ways, Nabahat Lotia is one of those artists who in her extensive practice has not only made sure this form of art remains visible but has also contributed to its sustainability and archiving.
Lotia was born into an agricultural family in Lahore, Punjab. The artist in her carefree childhood spent her Sundays playing in the fields and crafting with the fertile soil of a village called Prem Nagar in the outskirts of Lahore, where her father looked over their lands. Even in her adolescence, Lotia was a keen observer and often took part in various manual activities that she was drawn to in this village such as fishing, organic rope making, basket and mat weaving, and of course, pottery.
With her fascination and critical observation of these now endangered crafts, it is unsurprising that she had always had a creative flair. Lotia excelled in other subjects as much as she did in art during her schooling days at Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore. She later enrolled in Kinnaird College which she claims was an eye opener for her since being from a conservative family with limited exposure, she now experienced and encountered individuals from all walks of life. After graduating, Nabahat Lotia rebelled against her family and sought admission in National College of Art, a co- educational institution that met with a lot of reservations. Even then, she had not foreseen that it will be ceramics that will be her true calling. However just after a year Lotia dropped out, got married, and relocated to Karachi.
Having started a family, Lotia spent most of her time home-making and in addressing the domestic commitments while also managing a design job at SHE magazine. Shortly after, the entire family relocated to Lahore.
This stage marked the inception of her venture in ceramics. To accessorise the house and the expansive garden, Nabahat Lotia scanned the neighbourhood for pottery workshops to collect interesting garden ware. One such place the artist frequented was Qainchi chowk in Lahore which was known for making the conventional planters (gamlas), common in every household. She acquainted herself with the local craftsmen and also met her informal Ustaad who having sensed her deep affinity for ceramics, encouraged her to sit on the wheel herself, to learn and partake instead of merely observing. Soon enough, she accommodated a pit wheel in her garden to practice from home. Lotia’s inquisitive nature pushed her to question the traditional form of the gamla and she asked the
potters to simply curve the rim inwards which drastically changed the silhouette of the entire pot. Spellbound, Lotia decided to risk showcasing those in her first exhibition, “Gamlas Revisited”. Attended by her social circle as well as the parents of her children‟s classmates, the exhibition was met with immense appreciation; the artist could not have foreseen the astonishment it would have garnered. This previously unprecedented, unimaginable form was quickly picked up in a wave-like revolutionary trend and became equally common across the country. With all credits to Lotia for the introduction, the exhibition was ground-breaking in redefining and shattering our myopic perception towards the image of gamlas.
A few years later, Nabahat Lotia and her family moved to Canada and then permanently back to Karachi. This time, Lotia made sure to allocate a space for her personal studio as well as for the stocky equipment to practice in the house that she and her architect husband designed together. Their house was later nominated for the Agha Khan Award for Architecture. With a well equipped studio at home the artist managed to spend more time immersed in clay, a process she finds extremely meditative, contemplative, and cathartic.
Even after having had numerous exhibitions, and having conducted several classes and workshops, Lotia still had a quench for being formally trained in the subject. She was inquisitive about the science and the technicalities behind the medium despite being proficient at it. Ignoring the scepticism she attracted for choosing to pursue studies much later in life, Lotia’s thirst for knowledge was finally quelled when she went back to school and graduated with a BFA in 2009 from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.
Since then, Nabahat Lotia has not only exhibited in several galleries across Pakistan but has also showcased her talent and skills internationally in various exhibitions, training workshops, and residencies in countries such as the USA, Canada, Turkey, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. She admits that she will never stop learning; the artist makes sure to track hidden locales bursting with ceramic activity in whichever destination she travels to, even if for leisure. Lotia makes sure to make her personal trips productive by finding and enrolling herself either as an observer or as a participant in various workshops, factories, or training programs. She has also extensively visited and traced all the visibly known as well as inconspicuous hubs of traditional potters across the country in both the metropolitan cities and the rural villages of Pakistan.
Lotia is also a pioneer in introducing alternate firing and glazing that she not only showcases in her work but also conducts workshops on to disseminate further. Raku, Obvara, smoke firing are some of those regional based firings that are often produced by communities who are coping with limited resources. Through her educational as well as artistic work, Lotia highlights this aspect and is vocal about encouraging others to locally source materials and techniques and to work with whatever environing limitations they may have.
Nabahat Lotia’s work has always stood out for its rustic and raw aesthetics, a facet that is not shared by majority of the other local ceramicists. Her pieces embody the earth and are a celebration of the nature and clay, an evident consequence of her childhood experiences and encounters. Lotia has not only been captivated with pottery but also with other hand-made crafts as well as indigenous rituals and activities. A recent installation, “Mannat” held in the exhibition “Basera” at Koel Gallery, replicated a tree riddled with fabric knots from the shrine of, Hazrat Ghoray Shah in Lahore, where devotees would offer ceramic horses to the saint to make vows.
Nabahat Lotia recalls how most of the villages she continually visits since her childhood were previously entirely self-sufficient and consumed all organic produce to run their household. Lotia not only pays homage to these practices but also voices her fears for our shared history and cultural identity that are now dwindling under the shadow of the fast-paced, mass produced, and mechanical lifestyle. For this reason, the artist stresses on encouraging the younger population to adopt hobbies involving various activities and crafts that require manual labour, to not be afraid of getting their hands dirty, and to spend more time outdoors with nature than on digital screens. She herself vigorously inculcates this habit in her grandchildren by assigning various craft projects upon their frequent visits.
To answer why not many artists-in-making pursue ceramics, Lotia cites the dearth of resources and facilities to be the reason. For one to practice ceramics, one must have access to an open space and large equipment such as a kiln, glazes, and a wheel. Lack of these discourages many who consequentially abandon their practice. She urges that institutional and private agencies need to step forth towards facilitating those who require such resources at a reasonable cost. The artist herself does so in whatever limited capacity she can by organising workshops and classes, and by accommodating firing opportunities at her studio.
Nabahat Lotia is striven to give back to the community of traditional potters she has immeasurably learnt from, return them their due credit, and to break the stigma by having their work recognised as a form of art and not a commodity or a mere functional object. She requests for an intervention from the state and other influential powers to keep these native practices alive and to preserve and enlist them as endangered heritage. Until then, the spirited and unfaltering artist plans to take on the project of documenting the various forms of indigenous ceramic processes, mapping the places where crafts in ceramics continue in Pakistan, photograph, archive, and interview the communities responsible before they slowly dissipate out of existence.