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Excerpt from 1907 ‘A potter’s song’ from Mediaeval Sinhalese Arts by A. K. Coomaraswamy (Pantheon Books, New York with the patronage of the Government of Ceylon): “Waking up before dawn, carrying the basket, the potter fares to the place of clay. After cleaning the basket and the place of clay, he worships his guardian god. Wearing only the loin-cloth, and gladly taking the basket in hand he goes down into the pit. Breaking up the clay, he takes a yoke-load and heaps in the yard, in the sun. Having dried the clay and removed the stones, he pounds the mortar. Taking up the water, he makes the powder into balls of clay and covers them with leaves. Three days after, sprinkling the finest sand and water, he kneads again. After kneading, he balls them and makes a heap again. He’ll take them up in three days again.” 


This text gives a glimpse into the laborious work of the traditional Sri Lankan potter at the very beginning of the process. With clay pots being the main utility vessels of the island at the time, it was normal for local potters to create large amounts of pots in their average work month, carefully splitting time to source raw materials, prep, sculpt and cure before the bullock carts going to the city would come by to pick up the stock. 


✺ The striking image accompanying this text is by the legendary Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt. It was taken about 30 years after the above text was penned by Coomaraswamy. At the slow pace with which things changed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) at that time, we can deduce that Wendt’s potter was not too different from Coomaraswamy’s. The photograph depicts the final part of the traditional potter’s process—sun-baking. Originally made as a gelatin silver print, this photograph always reminds us how something as ordinary as the diligent occupation of human hands can produce extraordinary outcomes. It has now been recreated by us as a screen-print with PD rights.

Day’s work: two-colour screen-print

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