She is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire.
The luminous heart of the Unknown is she, …
Lines from Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s epic poem Savitri describe the female godhead.
After graduating from Stanford with a degree in Japanese studies, Deborah Smith spent two years in Japan learning to make pots, first with ceramic sculptor Araki Takako and then apprenticing under master potter Yamamoto Toshu in the pottery town of Imbe in the Bizen region. It was not that pottery was a passion or a career choice, she explains, “I travelled to Japan because I wanted to immerse myself in a craft and submit to the practice with a master.” Eugen Herrigel’s little book Zen in the Art of Archery provided inspiration and direction to Deborah’s search.
She returned to the US and assisted Susan Peterson in the ceramics department of the University of Southern California. She would later return to Japan with Professor Peterson, to aid her in research for a book on Living National Treasure Hamada Shoji. It was at USC that she met Ray Meeker.
It was during that time, at the East West Cultural Center in Los Angeles, that Deborah discovered The Adventure of Consciousness written by Satprem, a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The book was a turning point.
Attracted to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, Deborah arrived in Pondicherry in December of 1970. Soon she was sitting before Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfasa, known to her devotees as The Mother. One of The Mother’s assistants had learned that Deborah had studied pot-making in Japan and asked her to start a pottery. The Mother sanctioned the project to start a glazed pottery unit as part of the ashram activities. Deborah’s only condition: “if my friend comes and builds me a kiln, then I will try.”
That friend was Ray Meeker, and with his arrival in March 1971, the Golden Bridge Pottery began.
"On my first morning in Pondicherry, I picked up a terracotta shard on the road to the ashram dining hall, and I saw then, by the curve and cross-section of that single shard, that the local Tamil potter was a far greater master of his craft than I would ever be."
'The first kiln, built in 1972, was a thirty-cubic-foot catenary arch with drip-feed oil burners.'
At the outset Deborah and Ray decided on a few principles that would shape the ethos and environment at GBP. They would not depend on electricity in the production process. They would share whatever they knew and whatever they learned. Instead of hiring labor on the model of piecework, they would train and employ young men from the neighboring community with no pottery experience, integrating them into the framework of GBP and eliminating any ambiguity surrounding a high standard of work.
The Mother directed Deborah and Ray to a half-acre of temple land that was under lease to the ashram at the time. She called it “a lucky spot”. The pottery began as a ten-foot by twenty-foot open shed of bamboo and thatch and grew slowly over the next twenty years to its present form—a series of low-rise open sheds with sweeping tile roofs that stand testimony to the vision of beauty, dedication, and hard work in a celebration of the natural world.
The first kiln, built in 1972, was a thirty-cubic-foot catenary arch with drip-feed oil burners. Then in 1979 Ray built a three-chambered climbing kiln, fueled by drip-fed oil augmented by firewood. From the new kiln emerged pots licked by flame and blushed with ash from the firewood, glazed in tenmoku, kaki, chun and egg-shell matts, many painted by Deborah. Soon, Golden Bridge Pottery was found in the few trendy boutiques that existed at the time in Bombay and Delhi.
Guided by their own aesthetic, Deborah and Ray did not allow a market unused to stoneware pottery to dictate what was made at Golden Bridge. Deborah brought to the studio her appreciation of Japanese aesthetics. “We were influenced by the ‘Leach/Hamada tradition,’ of robust reduction-fired functional stoneware that was popular in American universities in the 60s,” she adds.
Ray had studied architecture for four years before eventually getting his BFA in ceramics. In 1985 Ray’s interest in architecture led him into an adventure with ‘fire-stabilized mud building’—raw brick vaults and domes fired in situ and finished as living spaces— by far his largest kiln building project. After twelve years of firing ‘houses,’ he returned to his studio, but the challenge of large-scale clay work remains in his current ceramic sculpture expressing environmental themes.
The stoneware clay body at GBP is made using fireclay, ball clay, china clay, quartz and feldspar, purchased directly from mines in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Two types of red surface clay and river sand are sourced locally.
In 1983 Ray expanded the pottery activities by opening a seven-month training course for students. He taught four to six students almost every year since then. In 2017 Aarti Manik, a full-time artist-in-residence, took over teaching the course which is now six-months long and expanded to eight students. Students at GBP are encouraged to become honestly self-critical with enough confidence to start their own workshops
“Though we do preach GBP standards, we do not expect students to remain stuck in a GBP aesthetic. Today our students are about as interested in making functional stoneware as the sons of Indian village potters are interested in continuing in their fathers’ footsteps. Former students, now serious artists in their own right, are enriching the field of studio ceramics in India and abroad. That said, what the students have brought to us is at least as important as what we have given to them. The students have given us India. Without them our Indian experience would have been seriously circumscribed.”
Since 1997, to further augment the experience of aspiring Indian clay artists, Golden Bridge Pottery has organized yearly three-week-long workshops, bringing international ceramicists to Pondicherry:
In 1979 Golden Bridge facilitated the filming of Ron DuBois’s documentary on the making of an Ayyanar horse. Through Ron, Ray and Deborah were introduced to Dutch ceramic artists Johnny Rolf and Jan de Rooden, they became life-long friends and Jan participated in Ray’s first fired building experiment.
"In 1988 Sardar Gurcharan Singh, the “father of Indian studio pottery” came from New Delhi to work at GBP for an exhibition in Chennai. Daddyji’s pots were just one expression of a man who ardently personified the humanist and the spiritual values espoused by the hands-on artist/philosophers that he met in Japan in 1919. His life—his laugh and the sparkle in his eye—was ballast to the apathy so common to the late 20th century."
The early 2000’s saw the growth of a relationship with the Tamil potter and votive sculptor T.Pazhanisamy. Ray recounts “We met Pazhanisamy on a tour of South Indian potters with Deborah Thiagarajan, the founder of Dakshinachitra and Hans Kaushik, an authority on South Indian culture. Pazhanisamy later worked with me making terracotta products for my fired buildings and made large jars—funerary urns—in stoneware for my exhibitions. “
In 2007 Peter Thompson came to GBP for a three-month residency, and along with Ray pulled down the old three-chambered kiln that hadn’t been used in years and built India’s first anagama.
Reduction fired stoneware in South India is blossoming. There are now more than twenty workshops in the Pondicherry and Auroville area. A new craft tradition is born: ‘Pondicherry Pottery.’ Growing under the umbrella of GBP, much of it has a characteristic look and while studio artists seek their own distinct styles, local entrepreneurs generally imitate Golden Bridge. The Pondicherry potteries range from one-man studios to small-scale production units employing up to 35 persons. And buyers from India and abroad now come to Pondicherry in search of ceramic products.
In 2014, Bridges, an exhibition by 50 former GBP students opened in New Delhi:
"A world is born of the experience of Deborah and Ray, a world that has inspired and nurtured a generation of artists in India, who are breaking new ground in ceramics today. Of Bridges, Peter Nagy of Nature Morte Gallery remarked, “It is fantastic to see the influence of [GBP] on so many artists in India, and the range of expression it has spawned.” On the working committee of the Indian Ceramics Triennale, six of the eight members are former GBP students. "
“I have had to relinquish a good deal of the romance, but still, I am pleased when visitors find an island of tranquility in the Golden Bridge Pottery environment, in an ever-encroaching modernity.”
Deborah has managed the Golden Bridge Pottery for decades. Since 1987, when Ray dropped his brush and took his fired-building experiments beyond the compound of the pottery, Deborah has single handedly decorated much of GBP’s production pieces, an aspect of the work that remains the unique signature of Golden Bridge ware until 2018 when she retired.
Today, on the road to the pottery chaos reigns in a cacophony of buses, cyclists, tricycle carts, random pedestrians, motor cyclists and auto-rickshaws, noxious trucks and cars—all bully, fending for advantage—as they weave their way through the melee. But as one turns off the main road onto a side lane along the railway line, and moves through the gate of the Golden Bridge Pottery compound, one enters a slower, gentler world. Says Deborah, “I have had to relinquish a good deal of the romance, but still, I am pleased when visitors find an island of tranquility in the Golden Bridge Pottery environment, in an ever-encroaching modernity.”
Pondicherry is proud of its French heritage, its Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the nearby international township of Auroville, its beachfront promenade, the green park at its center, its thriving commerce and growing institutions. And it’s proud of its pottery too. In a local travel agency, a poster for Air India reads, “Pondicherry—where the potter reigns supreme.”
With this rich history of a half century, Golden Bridge is an example of dedication towards the ideal of bringing beauty into this world. It represents a living force that has drawn together creative peoples from various backgrounds and countries and continues to do so, vibrantly, today.