by Aditya Dev Sood
From my window, I can see the illuminated window of a shop named Dankotuwa, which promises ‘world-class tableware.’ It seems a dated claim, one that we’ve stopped making in India. I’m in Colombo on work, but this seems a fateful time to be in Sri Lanka. My ride in from the airport was interrupted at three different checkpoints, and at each of them the identity cards of my driver and his companion were checked and my passport was scrutinized. I’d been fantasizing about renting a motorcycle and driving around the countryside on my free Saturday, but there is a tension in the air, and a surfeit of paramilitary presence everywhere. Earlier this week, a Letter from the Grave was published around the world, and the Sinhalese Army is said to be on its way to finally wiping out the Tamil L.T.T.E. It’s looking like Dankotuwa might be all I’ll be doing on Saturday morning.
The next afternoon, after a field visit, I ask my Sri Lankan colleague Harsha about Dankotuwa, and learn of Sri Lanka’s unique contemporary tradition of ceramics, which began with the Japanese joint-venture, Noritake, then Dankotuwa and now a new one, Midaya. Several hybrid cross-cultural Ceylonese-Japanese families now nurture this trade. I should buy a set for my own home, I am advised, for this is the finest tableware in the world, and here it will be available to me at Sri Lankan prices.
Come Saturday, I step inside and look around, and am flooded with waves of memory and dream-like associations.
These tea sets remind me of aunties’ houses, where I might have played as a boy, even as they were involved in their rituals of nicety. Here are sets in an abstracted colonial style, blue, white and gold, there the style veers off to East Asia with light rose and dark red or else impossibly modest shades of powder blue. Abruptly, I am pulled directly into the present, with stark white and platinum designs, no doubt for the expatriate servants of Dubai’s emiratii. These sets speak of an adulthood and gentility my parents might have aspired to, and one I’m likely to evade altogether. But there was once a time when I was being served from a set of this kind, which belonged to the parents of a young woman, in whose courtyard I was sitting, on the floor, in the monsoon. The flow of language in time had ceased, the two of us were lost in the imagination of a future that never came good. It is a jagged piece of memory, surprisingly hurtful, so perhaps still healing.
Gleaming white forms from the edge of the store catch my eye. Milk-white pieces of porcelain are begging for attention and comprehension, perhaps on account of their near-total stylelessness. Nordic? I look on the back, but it says Wolf Karnagel, the German designer famous for designing cutlery and crockery for Lufthansa. The pieces are voluptuous in form but rigorously abstracted, pushing free of the bone-china of which they are made, aspiring to pure Platonic pot-ness, cup-ness, sugar-dish-ness, though they remain marked with some of the austerity and economy that one remembers from early aircraft cabin design.
Held up to the light, the pieces of crockery are translucent, which pleases me for some reason. It is like an X-ray, or perhaps a child’s conception of an X-ray, or even perhaps the wonder that comes from putting a flashlight to one’s thumb and seeing the pinkish luminescence of your own flesh. The Sanskrit philosophers raised up the clay-pot, or ghatam, to a high and exalted status by choosing it as their favorite example of an actually existing thing, something made of material, formed and fired, used, but then liable to be broken, crushed to dust and returned to earth. Words, souls, and the Dharma are not like these, for although they may also be known by us, they are neither created, nor liable to destruction, but merely perdure, no matter how they come into and out of our cognition. Made of clay, warm with the tea of life, ready to be poured out slowly, but easily fractured and quickly leaking away, pots and their like, including your body, are born, exist transiently, and will one day surely wither away.
My parents’ tea ceremonies required a separate teapot for her light American tea, and for his kadak, military-style, chai. The morning might still be breaking under their rajai, or else the air-conditioner might be droning, causing droplets and then rivulets of condensation on their bedroom windows. Between sleep and the wakefulness of day, a shared time, accented by newspapers. I began drinking tea from the dregs of my mother’s pot, dipping Glucose biscuits into the weak liquor. When dipped, the biscuit would break off, splashing into my cup, collecting at the bottom, making a disgustingly delightful goo, that I would then lick out of its depths.
So far, my girlfriend and I have been using a highly idiosyncratic pair of ceramic mugs made at an artists’ commune in Pondicherry’s Auroville. But I can see the appeal of the wholeness and symmetry of a tea set. Placed on a tray, the elements of a tea set are a diagram of completeness, like a family, the disparately sized elements in likeness but with functional specificity. The outsized pot shadows over the cups, but is assisted by the sugar and milk pieces, and only together do they make the ritual whole. One only wants these things once one is settled in life, comfortably resident within a home. They are meaningless so long as you are in transit and they cannot, in any case, survive in flight.
Neither lingam nor yoni, teapots sometimes appear to me as abstract but utile household deities of intermediate gender, a bit like the Tibetan White Tara. The peculiar and asymmetric form of teapots has emerged as a response to daunting physical, biomechanical and social-interactional needs. There is, first of all, a lot of liquor to be held – weighing more than half a kilo – and it is too hot to be held directly. It should stay hot, but above all it should pour, and pour with grace. And it should hold our gaze while in mid-pour. It should arrest our sense of time, allow us to register and record this moment of shared social space, and elevate its quality. Between elevating our aesthetic sensibility and holding its pour, there can be infinite play of form, function and existential meaning in a teapot. In a design store in Helsinki, a surreal composition of jagged cork, what looked like tree bark, and ceramic, once tempted me with its mystical promise of Arctic serenity. Having no handle appears a better proposition at the point-of-sale, as we say in the trade, than in the context-of-use. For better or worse, you’ll never know how a pot pours until you take it home and use it. If it works well, you’ll use it and chip it and then finally break it. If it doesn’t pour or hold properly, though, it will rise like a deity, to its shrine on the shelf.
In the early 1980s, Aldo Rossi, one of the architectural heroes of my youth, sought to distill centuries of form into a single, final archetype. His piece has handles, and its maker Alessi ensured that it could pour, but the sepulchral finality of his composition, which presumes that there will nevermore be a need for further coffeepot design, seems to me linked to his preoccupation with death in those years, and even to his almost compulsive drawings and designs of cemeteries. The social ceremonies of tea – and coffee – are about life, not death, but there is something to Rossi’s approach, for at archeological digs of all kinds, in burial chambers from the distant past, and at base of Buddhist stupas in Sarnath and even in Sri Lanka, what one digs up is mostly bones and shards of pottery. And in the frozen moments of time that make up the ceremonial consumption of tea, I can believe that one tastes something of those eternities.
The form of a teacup awaits and anticipates its human users with intimacy, affording a second finger leverage, varieties of opposition for the thumb, and of course, that slippery kiss. But it has still more intimate links with the human body: the word ‘cup’ has Indo-European roots, being linked to cupola, as in dome, as well as the Latin cephalus and the Sanskrit kapala, both cognate words for skull. The kapalika-s, of course, are members of that now nearly extinct sect of Saivism, who carry around a human skull, from which they both eat and drink. I believe it is a false calumny that their skull belongs to someone they have killed, but rather that their purpose is, like Hamlet, to be in proximity and awareness of death, the better to feel their own quickness and capacity for live action. How much does it matter whether one’s cup be found whole in nature or be crafted by human hands? Whether it be a human relic or a fine puree of mammalian bones? The important thing is that a cup can serve as a means for dialogue, for silent communion, for mutuality and shared sustenance.
I am overcome with traveler’s malaise, being disconnected from and yet too much aware of everything around me. This shop is suddenly too close to the presidential palace further down the road. The tea sets around me are now signs of Sri Lanka’s tea industry, whose tea plantations were the original cause for the indentured migration of Tamils to Ceylon. I feel neurotically susceptible to the violence in the air, which while remaining invisible, is coming to permeate our every breath. Twenty-five years of fractious civil war are ending now, but not with a tea ceremony.
Behind the counter, the packing clerk carefully packs my tea pot, my samovar, my sugar dish, my creamer, and my six cups with their six saucers into a Dankotuwa box and seals it with tape on all sides for export.