Indonesia has been a melting pot of cultures for thousands of years, and continues to be so today. India is one country that has made its mark on Indonesian culture, not least by introducing Hinduism and Buddhism.
The legacy of Indian-Indonesian ties is on display in cultural masterpieces like the grand temples of Borobudur and Prambanan in Central Java and court dances inspired by Hindu myths like the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Now an exhibition titled “A Journey of Pots” seeks to show how these ties extend to the most mundane of items. Organized by the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Center in Jakarta and the Indonesian Heritage Society, the exhibit, which runs until Monday, highlights the works of Indonesian potter Adhy Putraka Iskandar and his Indian counterpart Arti Gidwani.
Both artisans specialize in making martaban, large pots and jars used for thousands of years on the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia.
“The martaban jar was actually made in the town of Martaban [now Mottama], which is located in present day Burma. They were found in Ujung Kulon National Park, West Java, and as far afield as Kalimantan … [dating to] the fourth or fifth century BC,” IHS vice chairman Mike Nicholson said.
“The martaban were used for various purposes, among them storing exported foods and spices for sea voyages, or storing medicine and wine. These multi-purpose items are even used as bone receptacles and burial urns for kings. As such, their users believe that martaban jars have mystic powers.”
Nicholson added that the manufacture of martaban jars was still thriving in Indonesia, as they are still made in cities like Tangerang, Banten, and Plered, West Java.
Adhy and Arti’s modern day martaban are more like pots, although not as massive as the original version. Nonetheless, crafting the jars is a labor of love.
“Making [martaban jars] comes naturally, as I love working with clay. I have been making pottery for 12 years, and I have collaborated with Adhy for eight of those years,” Arti said.
“Our work with clay and interchangeable styles brought us together,” Arti added. “We share our know-how and technical skills, though I have been making pottery and sculpture since the 1980s whereas Arti is largely self-taught.”
Arti noted that the martaban she makes are very different to those from Adhy, though they appear similar at first glance.
“The Indian style [martaban] that I make have more decorative motifs. On the other hand, Adhy’s martaban are more utilitarian, as the martaban made in Indonesia are highly influenced by Chinese styles and are largely devoid of decoration,” she said.
Some of Arti’s pots reflect her background. One of them depicts a day in the life of an Indian village, while another pot is shaped like a woman’s face.
On the other hand, several of Adhy’s pots are adorned with dragon motifs, reflecting the Chinese influence found among Indonesian martaban.
Arti pointed our that the differences did not end there.
“Indian martaban and other pots are made of terracotta, whereas those made in Indonesia are made of stoneware. Adhy introduced me to stoneware in making my pots because terracotta is unusual in Indonesia,” she explained.
While both artists’ pots appear deceptively simple to the untrained eye, the exquisitely lacquered and glazed pieces reflect the best of Indian and Indonesian pottery traditions.
For Indian ambassador Gurjit Singh, the joint exhibition, and prior events such as a culinary exhibition showcasing Indonesian and Indian food at the Four Seasons Hotel last month, were a good way to draw the two countries closer.
“Indonesian and Indian government-to-government ties and bilateral relations have always been good. But I think it’s time to expand [Indian and Indonesian] social and economic ties in such fields as investment and technology,” Singh said.
“We will have other events, including a photography exhibit next month showing pictures taken by an Indonesian who traveled through India.”
Singh added that other joint projects in fields including media and film are also in the works.
The two potters are selling their work. Prices range from Rp 500,000 to Rp 1.5 million ($51 to $153).
Whether you want to admire the handiwork or add something to your collection, the exhibition is worth checking out.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 2, 2013