A Postcard from History: Blue Pottery and the Forgotten Legend of Kripal Singh Shekhawat
The ubiquity of blue pottery in Jaipur sparks the idea that it was born in the Pink City. It is woven so intimately in Jaipur’s heritage that it is unthinkable to view it as an imported art form. Its evolutionary tale is cinematic, and so is the story of the ‘Father of Blue Pottery’, Kripal Singh Shekhawat.
Blue pottery is one-of-a-kind in the world; it does not use clay in its making. Turko-Persian in its origins, skilled artisans came to the Indian subcontinent with the delicate art of blue pottery in the fourteenth century. They depicted Persian designs of flowers, fauna and arabesques, bestowed with glazes learnt from ancient Chinese secrets. These decorations adorned the walls of palaces, mosques, and other cultural landmarks across Central Asia and the Middle East.
In India, with the Mughal invasion, the artwork appeared in Kashmir, instantly becoming a fascination for the monarchs. The craft that was earlier limited to architectural applications swiftly found a popular home in decorative articles. From Kashmir, ‘blue pottery’ trickled southwards in the region, as brewing magic in the hands and hearts of the travelling craftsmen, ultimately landing in Delhi.
As a seventeenth-century legend narrates, while attending a kite flying competition, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur summoned two brothers from Achhnera, a small town in Agra, who defeated the Royals. The curious King questioned them and was told that the brothers were potters who had coated the strings of their kites with the coloured glass they employed in making their pots. Upon encountering the exotic brilliance of these kite-flying brothers who made blue pottery, the King invited the brothers to his heartland, Jaipur, to enlighten the local artisans of the eye-catching blue ware.
Receiving Royal sponsorship, palaces and other monuments of the city were decorated with its distinctive Persian motifs. The pottery pieces also sported intricate designs of flowers, birds, animals. As time elapsed, Hindu deities were painted with soft, handmade squirrel-hair brushes on the decorative repertoire. By the nineteenth century, Jaipur had transformed into the centre of ‘blue pottery.’
By the 1950s, with decades of mounting national efforts to drive out British rule from the country, ‘blue pottery’ found itself dwindling in popularity, almost becoming extinct. The decline came from the lack of status for the artisans, their reluctance to nurture successive generations, and the lack of appreciation of the ‘blue pottery’ legacy as part of the economic potential for tourism and cultural art forms.
A witness to the decline and potential loss of ‘blue pottery’, was Kripal Singh Shekhawat, born in 1922 in Jaipur, was a revered muralist and ceramist. Carrying his Rajasthani descent, Shekhawat studied painting at Shanti Niketan in West Bengal, later pursuing a diploma in Oriental Arts from Tokyo University. His paintings were lyrical; they revealed tales with the details and complexity previously unknown. Some of his illustrations also appear in the original version of the Constitution of India.
When he returned home to the dying art form of ‘blue pottery’, he embarked upon steering a path to its glorious renaissance. Shekhawat was a visionary whose artwork in both painting and pottery embraced tradition and modernity. He revived this art with fresh ideas to take it forward.
Serving as the Director of the Sawai Ram Singh Shilpa Kala Mandir, Shekhawat taught painting and pottery. He worked in close collaboration with Maharani Gayatri Devi, the Princess of Jaipur, and the Government of India in reinstating ‘blue pottery’ as a signature craft of Jaipur and Rajasthan. In 1974, in honour of his remarkable efforts, he was presented with the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in the Indian republic. He departed the mortal world on February 15, 2008.
The enduring international regard for Jaipur’s ‘blue pottery’ stands as a true testament to the life of Kripal Singh Shekhawat.
(Written for TOSS the Sheet, dated June 15, 2021: https://www.instagram.com/p/CQJIRaanvO9/)