It's a comment often heard from those who come face to face with Anamika's clay creations. The imprints of smoke and flame upon their paper-thin burnished surfaces are like floating whispers.
Anamika's smoke-fired pots are like meeting distinct personalities, all of them time-travellers. They may even have a quirky personality like a few at her recent solo exhibition in Auroville – a huge ball like pot with a tiny hole for a mouth, clownish in its gleeful rotundity. Or another one of terracotta, with an orange and black patina, its silhouette strangely reminiscent of a pasha's turban, or perhaps a perfume vial in the harem… Or the harmonious symmetry of the Native-American inspired wedding vase, its double-fluted mouths perhaps ready for the lovers' first exchange of wine in the mesa?
Then there are the innumerable rocks, eighty five in all, seeming to span the geological ages; each startlingly weightless in its air-filled void.
This is Anamika's first show in Auroville after 15 years of work in clay. The works exhibited in Kala Kendra's basement seemed right at home alongside the 3000 year old terracotta urns from Auroville's own archaeological digs.
Anamika has been involved in pottery since 1993. Unlike most Auroville potters, her rite of passage did not involve Golden Bridge , Pondicherry 's pioneering pottery unit started by Ray and Deborah Meeker. “I am second generation – Ray and Deborah are my grandparents!” she says, her eyes crinkling with laughter.
Anamika came to Auroville in 1984 when she was barely 22. A nurse for the mentally-handicapped by training, she spent her early years establishing the Vérité community with Bill Sullivan and others. This was followed by a year's work at the Matrimandir office before she got involved in the Visa Service, and then with Francis and Govind in starting the Auroville Bakery.
Nine years later, her entry into pottery came about under strange circumstances. “Chinmayi had gone to the Ashram pottery to learn but they only let her wedge clay for weeks on end. Then somehow she got accepted by Michel (of Flame pottery) as one of his students. Once I mentioned to her how nice that she could do pottery, and she immediately said that she'd ask Michel if I could also become his student. And Michel, who usually says ‘No', said ‘Yes', and I didn't even have to ask myself! So there I was. And never before that time had I ever seen anybody make a pot – not even on the television!”
Anamika stopped her work at the Visa Service but continued baking, giving three days a week to pottery. “A year later, when I had barely finished my learning, Chinmayi started her pottery unit, Mandala, and she came to me and asked if I'd like to join her. “We went into production immediately. In the beginning there were no workers, and I didn't know anything. Plus we had to live from what we made.”
How was the experience? “Well, you've got to be stubborn and really want it – otherwise you'd give up. Especially with throwing pots on the wheel. You know how it should be done, and how the end product should turn out. But your fingers and hands, they don't know – they just fumble about. So you try and try again.
“Then I realized that if I visualized how to do it, that it had an influence on my body. So often at night, before I went to bed, I would throw these imaginary pots!”
After fifteen years, Anamika has settled deeply into the rhythms of a potter's life. “I see now that I really need to do this work for my grounding; otherwise I would be so spaced out. And I don't think I would survive Auroville.
“Because in Auroville, if you are in meetings, you have to have a very strong vital and a strong mind. My mind is quick, but it's not something that forces itself on others or puts itself out strongly.”
Anamika also has another take on why she might have become a potter. “I often did wonder why I ended up with clay. Then I remembered that when I was in kindergarten, we were 40 kids in the class and there was one clay table where once a week one child was allowed to do something. In the beginning of the year, I had my chance and I remember liking it soooo much. So every week, when the teacher would ask who wanted to work on the clay table, I always put up my hand eagerly but never again got a chance. So there must have been something bottled up inside me from that time...
“And somewhere, The Mother has said that if you have a strong wish, you have to be careful. Because in another time in your life it might just come along, and maybe then it is not so necessary anymore!”
While Anamika does a variety of works through Mandala's production – tableware, murals, panels – a popular signature piece is her bas relief of two Indian gods: Ganesh and Krishna . It was Ganesh whom she first started out with, and later moving on to Krishna , albeit tentatively. She explains. “You don't just start with Krishna ; I didn't dare… You've to have some sort of relationship with him. Ganesh is anyway a jolly fellow who'll make life easy. I remember in the beginning how inspired I felt by some of the energies.”
So why has it taken her so long before she has come out with a solo exhibition in Auroville?
“Perhaps it was my reaction to what I see in the art world – a tendency to play the role of the ‘artist'; to be special and be seen and written about so that you make a name and sell your stuff. All that put me off.
“I don't feel I am an artist – I make things because I like to make things. So in order not to belong to ‘them', I stayed in my corner.
“But then recently something happened that helped me overcome this attitude. Michel, who is even more radical, refused to write anything about himself for a recent group show. His blunt response was “I am a potter – what more can I say?” When I heard of this, I thought ‘Yes! I don't have to play the game; I can just be myself. There is no need to hide!”
The response to her show was overwhelmingly positive, and almost all of her works were bought, mostly by Auroville residents. “That was a pleasant surprise,” says Anamika. “I did not expect it. I am even more happy that the pieces remain in Auroville.”
Perhaps an added motivation for the normally frugal Aurovilians to buy Anamika's beautiful pieces was that she was going to give all the sale proceedings to the Matrimandir. “It just felt right,” she says earnestly. “And at Mandala, we make enough at the moment.”
The show generated Rs.31,000 for the Matrimandir, plus it made over a score residents extremely happy to own something so exquisite. Like the pasha's turban which sits under a spotlight on my own writing table.