The art of pottery and ceramics has been a legacy of all civilizations from times immemorial. In subcontinent, pottery was practiced even before the first noted civilization of 2500 and 1500 BC in the area which is today known as Indus delta covering what is today Pakistan and northeast of India. In modern times, while other classic art forms such as painting and sculpture have nurtured their practitioners and patrons, ceramic has oft been neglected by both. Shahid Waheed Khan, one of the very few ceramists that have done solo shows and is recognised for his dedication and unique expression, is keeping the exquisite art of ceramic alive in Pakistan. Shahid gets inspired by his environment, people he meets, and everyday objects. “I also get inspired by my seniors such as Salahuddin Mian or the duo of Talat and Dabeer Ahmed since there are hardly any emerging ceramists in Pakistan. One may draw one’s inspiration from another artist’s work but the unique expression inevitably reflects and something new gets created. Sometimes I make drawings before throwing clay on the wheel. What is created at the end may not even be what I drew. Each piece takes its own life and dictates its own shape.”
Shahid graduated from National College of Arts, Lahore in 1974 with ceramic as his specialization. Disappointed by the lack of creative avenues in ceramic industry he moved to Islamabad, where he had a few friends working at the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage – Lok Virsa also established in the same year. Not able to find a job to complement his academic background, he ended up at Pakistan Television. As a ceramist he understood three dimensional designs and though he could design sets but was instead placed in calligraphy department. Bored within ten days, he got an offer from Lok Virsa to start pottery classes and set up a workshop. “I needed 30,000 to import a furnace from England and fire pieces created by my students. The management at Lok Virsa declined. I said good bye to that place and went on to join Pakistan National Council of Arts as a puppet theatre designer”. In 1978, General Zia-ul-Haq took over and theatre, puppetry, and music related activities were banned. After a short stint at Ministry of Science and Technology as display designer, Shahid eventually landed at Allama Iqbal Open University as a production designer. He worked at the University for 30 years and went on to learn production design at BBC and cel animation, a hand-drawn animation technique, from Malaysia.
“I saved enough to set up my studio at home. I kept working at the university to pay the bills but my evenings were spent in the studio.” According to Shahid, an art college teaches a sense of colours, compositions, and materials. The creative expression must come from within. “Salahuddin Mian, credited as Pakistan’s first ceramist and potter, was my teacher at the college. During our orientation he asked me why I was interested in ceramic. I said I am curious to learn how this common clay transforms into a bartan – a utensil glazed and beautiful. I never once in my life regretted my choice. Ceramic art is an intoxication. You get sucked into it and every day you feel the urge to touch the clay. The pliability and softness of clay teaches you humility. When you fire a piece in the kiln you learn firmness.”
Most of Shahid’s ceramic work is classic, round, and lyrical compared to the modern trends in ceramic art, especially of the ceramists such as Jesse Wine, Brian Rochefort, Agata van Dijk, Nao Matsunaga and others. “If your surroundings are noisy, chaotic, rebellious, or you sense frustration it will reflect in your art. It will be an intellectual dishonesty to induce that feeling if it does not germinate from within. I like to work with wheel and wheel spins and only creates round forms. You may find disturbing textures in some of my pieces but the form will always be soft and round. A ceramist in Europe may take a clay lump, throw it on a slab, throw more lumps big and small, make a composition and dip brushes in glazes and splash on it. The viewers will accept it. I don’t know if that level of acceptance will ever be a norm in our society.”
Finding the right material and equipment is challenging for ceramists in Pakistan. “Materials available here have a lot of impurities. If the composition of clay is not perfect or if there are impurities in it, results will be totally different from what you want.” For Shahid the solution is in ingenuity. He makes his own glazes – a rusted sheet of iron will give him the raw material for a range of brown hues. “A ceramist cannot depend on readymade material. One has to develop recipes for clay and glazes. Terracotta plays very well on a wheel and lets the ceramist create large forms. But stoneware, which is a combination of different materials such as ball clay, Kaolin and a few others, finding the right quality is important. It is a big challenge if the artist wants to throw a bigger piece of stoneware on the wheel. I also experimented extensively with glazes. I have a small kiln that I made myself. It took a lot of effort to assemble it.”
These days Shahid is experimenting with Raku, a technique mainly practised in Japan, China, and Korea. The clay composition for Raku is different. The ceramist takes out a burning piece from the furnace with a long tong and puts it in a bucket full of leaves, liquid, or paper. A lid is placed on the smoke filled bucket and as the ceramic cools down surreal effects are created on the surface. “New dimensions in ceramic are not being explored in Pakistan. I am involved in teaching these days and I do notice that the commercial considerations have taken over the real passion for art. The blame is not entirely on the young artists. Our society as a whole needs to learn the value of art. There are very few ceramists here and even fewer exhibitions of this art form. Our galleries are also not equipped to display ceramic art. All plastic arts require specific exhibition spaces and each piece requires a customised pedestal for optimal viewing. Most of the time gallery owners, curators, and the viewers do not know how to properly display or view art. For ceramics of the scale that I create this is a huge impediment.”
While Shahid is not shy to admit that the ceramists in Pakistan may not have found the perfect recipe to commercialise this art but he is happy to continue exploring new forms and dimensions as he puts a fresh lump of clay on the wheel in his studio in Islamabad.