Memories that are tied to the earth are filled with nostalgia, spirituality and sacredness, each bringing with it a flavour of what it means to feel life through our hands and feet.
Harvested paddy fields, Odisha. Image courtesy Siddhartha Das
Maati kahe kumhar se, Tu kya rundhe mohe
Ik din aisa aayega, Mai rundhugo tohe
The clay tells the potter, Why do you knead me
One day shall come, When I will knead you
- Kabir, 15th Century poet and philosopher
One of the unmistakable joys as a child was to be able to play with the earth, mud, sand and clay… dry or wet. With time this joy vanished, to have my clothes or body ‘dirtied’ became unthinkable. One lucky vestige has been the smell of wet earth. Sometime back, while I was designing the space of the Jal Mahal in Jaipur, I began to work with some lovely old ittar-makers. One of the perfumes we used for the space was that of Gili Mitti (wet earth). It was ingenious that the transient smell of wet earth could be compacted into a little glass bottle and immediately be a throwback to the past. A nostalgic past, when somehow things felt simpler, easier and kinder.
Mud house with harvested paddy, Odisha. Image courtesy Siddhartha Das
My two concessions have been pottery and gardening, the first sadly I haven’t done in more than a decade and the latter is consigned to my weekend on my terrace – a hundred-odd pots with a mish-mash of plants, some grown, others that have found their way into them and will not go away. This weekly contentment always takes me back to what was a joyful though arduous chore to clean the garden at my father’s ancestral home in Odisha during our annual summer break. It was a white building with red-oxide floors and terracotta-tiled roofs. All the cousins were summoned by my father and we had to clean the garden, and one by one most of them would disappear, till only three of us were left. We would work till dusk to finish taking out the weeds and watering the garden. The garden had many trees, climbers and shrubs, but the ones I remember the most were the guava, tamarind, ber and the coconut trees. All could be harvested for their fruit, and what fun it was, to find the red ber and tamarind on the ground, or to climb the guava tree to have just the right shade of green on the fruit. We would spend hours as kids with no other desire than to find a few perfect fruit. Life was simple and good.
Paintings by indigenous communities exhibited at Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Image courtesy Siddhartha Das.
Two kindly souls who worked in the house, Dima and Phulo, came from nearby Santhal villages and ungrudgingly loved us in an un-effusive way. The distinction between the little town and the Santhal villages was a blur. Santhal homes were archetypes of fabulous vernacular homes. They were spotlessly clean, with the mud lepa that carried the memory of the hands that applied them in wave-like repetitions on the walls and the floors. The homes had a generous sprinkling of little ponds with blood-red lotuses and fresh harvests drying in neat formations on their raised porches or courtyards. A few years ago, I decided to put together a workshop with two Santhal masons as instructors and a troupe of 40 excitable architecture students shepherded by two professors to learn how to make mud floors and walls, mimicking gleefully but sloppily the Santhal instructors.
As with most tribal communities, the Santhal villages often have sacred groves where they believe the spirits live. Nature is sacred and the stages of life and of farming are intertwined, with burial at death, a returning to the earth. All religions of the world espouse similar intent: from dust to dust. And yet as people we fashioned clay and stone into gods, temples and palaces.
Siddhartha Das is a designer and visual artist who uses culture for socioeconomic change, and was the recipient of the British Council International Young Design Entrepreneur Award in 2009.
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