Gurcharan Singh was born in 1896 in Srinagar. At seven he was sent to school in Gujaranwala, where his grandfather lived. After his schooling was complete, he went to the Prince of Wales College in Kashmir to study Chemistry and Geology. Having undertaken studies with qualitative analysis of ores and minerals, he did a creditable amount of laboratory and field work, and in 1918 got a BSc. degree with Honours in Geology. Gurcharan Singh probably never realized how well this knowledge would serve him in later years when he changed from considering a career in Geology to his lifelong passion for ceramics.
In the summer of 1918, soon after his B.Sc. examination, his father received a letter from an old and dear friend in Delhi, Sardar Ram Singh Kabli, who owned a pottery called 'Delhi Pottery Works, where bricks and tiles were made. Sardar Ram Singh Kabli who was to become a prominent figure in Gurcharan's life, wanted to expand his small pottery concern, and asked his old friend if he was interested, in his son assisting in his work. Though Gurcharan Singh was not too keen on the idea, he came to Delhi anyway.
Brought into being by a declaration of George V. Emperor of India, at the Delhi Durbar in December 1911, New Delhi was still taking shape with its broad avenues and monumental architecture. What caught Gurcharan Singh's imagination, however, was a flash of the past-the vibrancy of the blue glaze that recalled the beauty of the many Sultanate-era monuments that littered the wilderness around the emerging city. The pottery was located on the outskirts of Delhi, where Safdarjang Airport is now located. At the time, Ram Singh Kabli was one of the prominent contractors supplying bricks to Sir Sobha Singh and Bisakha Singh, the foremost builders, of British India's Capital-New Delhi
At the pottery works, Gurcharan Singh worked for a year in every branch of pottery like throwing, moulding, casting and firing. Ram Singh then decided to send his young protege to Japan to learn more about commercial ceramics at The Higher Technological School in Tokyo.
For studio pottery in India, it was a propitious moment. In Japan, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Kenkichi Tomimoto, Kanjiro Kawai and Soetsu Yanagi, part of a seminal group of artists, potters, poets and thinkers, were beginning to express one of the most potent currents that has shaped the studio potter of today. Gurcharan Singh had gone to Japan to study industrial ceramics; he returned with the nascent Indian studio pottery movement securely lodged in his heart. He aspired to popularize art pottery in India. Although he knew this involved considerable self-sacrifice, he was determined to go ahead.
On the advice of Yanagi, Gurcharan Singh travelled to Korea and some parts of China. He found Korean potters making huge beautiful shapes, superbly proportioned, thick, heavy and solid; sometimes with intricate dragons painted on them. The pots were fired in huge furnaces, often with two rooms each. These could take up to fifteen days to fire and a thousand pieces could come out of a furnace. A keen appreciation of Korean pottery remained with him all his life.
In 1922 when he returned from Japan Gurcharan married Chattar Kaur, Ram Singh Kabli's daughter, and went back to work at Delhi Potteries. He started to produce some amount of art pieces along with tableware. It was at this time he met Abdullah Mussalman who was working at the brick kiln. A descendant of Pathan potters who had come to India in the 13th century, Abdullah taught Gurcharan Singh the secret of the blue glaze. He set up a small studio and started turning out amazingly beautiful pots. Many admired them. Friends congratulated him. But as days went by Gurcharan Singh was disappointed to find that nobody bought his artistic wares. With a sad heart he shut up shop.
In the late 1920s and early '30s, New Delhi was nearing completion; the brick kiln had been demolished to make way for the Willingdon Airport (now Safdarjung Airport) and the pottery works shifted to 1 Factory Road, on the outskirts of the city. Between 1924 and 1929 Gurcharan Singh continued to work with Ram Singh Kabli, making tiles, bricks, pots and moulded pottery. He then bought the land on which Delhi Potteries was located, from his father in law, and started constructing a new house on it.
For his new house, he designed arches and wide verandahs to let in plenty of light and air. The central room in front had a domed roof since he wanted use this room as a studio. The floors were patterned and laid with tiles made at Delhi Potteries. The famous Bengali artist Sarada Ukil from Santiniketan designed the mosaic tiles on the floors especially for the house. Plenty of space was created to keep items of pottery. Ready in 1932, the house was called Dome View, as it was possible in those days to see Safdarjung Airport from the domed roof of the house.
Due to competition with Japan a slump in the tile business in 1939, emboldened Gurcharan Singh to give up his work. He rented out his house and returned to his Kashmir, where he once again tried to realize his dream of reviving Indian pottery. The State Government became interested in his work and asked him to set up a pottery research laboratory. Soon after came another offer, this time from the Punjab Government. Gurcharan Singh was appointed Head of the Government Pottery Institute and Teaching School at Lahore and asked to build a pottery at Shadraha where he would train potters. Gurcharan Singh’s fourth child, Mansimran , was born in Lahore in 1939.
He was then directed to set up similar facilities in Ambala and Sonepat. It was not until 1952 that Gurcharan was able to return to Delhi, and reignite the kilns at Factory Road. He sought out Abdullah and with the traditional offering of a turban, five rupees and sweets, made him his guru. Together the Sikh potter who had refined his art in Japan and Korea and the old Pathan craftsman evolved a new idiom of aesthetic that became the signature of what Gurcharan Singh named Delhi Blue Art Pottery, after the famous Delhi Blue Glaze he so admired.
Although Gurcharan Singh continued to be influenced by Japanese and Korean forms he also made traditional Indian shaped pots. He used a mixture of clays from Delhi and Ahmedabad. This stoneware clay was fired to a high temperature in coal furnaces. With his knowledge of geology, he became a wizard at glazing. All the glazes were prepared from raw materials and ground by hand. Extraordinarily beautiful results were achieved by adroit dipping and pouring as he enhanced the cool stoneware with subtle and beautiful shades.
However demand for art pottery continued to be limited. The country was still reeling from the shock of Partition and for most people expenditure on anything other than the basics was difficult. But art pottery was where Gurcharan Singh's heart lay. He persisted, dedicating a section of Delhi Blue to studio pottery and producing tableware and art pieces at very affordable prices. At a time when there was no concept of studio pottery or, for that matter, art exhibitions, he displayed his work at an exhibition in Bombay in 1954, which proved to be a great success and paved the way for the future.
In the late fifites Gurcharan Singh often visited his friend Shobha Singh, a painter at a small village called Andretta in Himachal Pradesh. In Andretta he met Nora Richard who owned a lot of land in that area. She was keen to start a pottery in Andretta. After visiting Delhi Blue, she arranged for Gurcharan Singh to get some land and start a pottery to train local potters.
Gurcharan Singh was finally able to start the pottery in Andretta in 1961, and also build a simple house to live in. Over the years Andretta developed into an artists’ complex with well known artists such as late B.C. Sanyal and Paramjit Singh living and working there. In the sixties Delhi Blue was the only place in the country where you could sit down and learn to throw a pot. There were several university ceramic art programmes, but Delhi Blue fulfilled a different need. It offered an opportunity to just about anyone, to spend a few hours a week with clay. In the studio, Gurcharan Singh was affectionately addressed as "Daddyji", a term that expressed the familiar atmosphere of the open house that Delhi Blue was.
In his Delhi studio Gurcharan Singh was assisted by his family, all of whom were devoted to the craft. His son Mansimran Singh who had apprenticed under celebrated British potters Bernard Leach and Geoffrey Whiting, was becoming a ceramist of repute. On his return to Delhi in 1961, he began working in close collaboration with his father. The work of father and son combined the finest qualities of pottery from England, India and Japan.
The Delhi Blue Art Pottery also catered to the architectural needs of independent India's capital. Glazed tiles and jalis were incorporated in contemporary buildings by architects such as Stein., Doshi & Bhalla and Habib Rehman, as expressions of an ‘Indian’ identity. Some of them can still be seen today in buldings like the Dolls Museum, India International Centre and the Ford Foundation building in Delhi.
The increasing popularity of his work meant more exhibitions, more exposure and more demand on the pottery. But Gurcharan Singh still spurned the idea of mass production. "I am then free to do what I want," he would say" Art pottery is different from commercial pottery. In commercial pottery each one of the thousand pieces looks exactly alike. In art pottery, each piece is of a different shape, as individual as a painting.”
While Gurcharan Singh was best known for his production of Delhi Blue, which was a vivid blue pottery, he also experimented with other glazes such as eggshell white, grey and white and grey slipware, using contrast in textures to great effect. There was a great variety of white or off-white pieces with dripped patterns, glazed at the mouth in soft amber or raw sienna. Some shapes glazed in green had the richness of growing plant forms. Particularly attractive were coffee pots based on the mendicant's water jug and vases reminiscent of Persian or Middle Eastern pottery.
Meanwhile, in defiance of his seventy plus years, Sardar Gurcharan Singh managed to carry on unperturbed, a lump of clay evolving in his hands, creating pots, pitchers, jugs, bowls and tea sets which crowded every nook and cranny of the little pottery building. He seldom looked back, only ahead to the new forms and glazes he was experimenting with - stone grey, burnt orange…. a new gentian blue.
Around the 1970s, Gurcharan Singh's practice shifted from glazed surfaces to rough textures He said, "I like these rough textures, because their touch imparts a feeling to your hand. A glazed cup of modern pottery is cold to the touch. It has no character, it must give you warmth, must have clayiness. When you hold a cup, it must be able to communicate to you. Looking at pottery is not merely a visual pleasure. It must appeal to your touch. There is an old Chinese saying, 'Even a blind man can appreciate the beauty of pottery”.
He stuck to his policy of making everything by hand so no two pieces looked alike. He would say, "The human eye and the human hand are always subject to an element of error, and in this error, is the beauty of creation." These impressive, beautiful "errors" his hand and eye produced, won him not only admirers, but a host of imitators. Often when asked to safeguard his work by putting a stamp on it, he would laugh and say, "The artist's work will speak for itself-it is signature enough."
Through the '70s he held many shows, some individual and some jointly with his son Mansimran (Minni). He continued to develop his art, always experimenting with new forms and glazes. At this time he started exhibiting glazed pieces made from the red clay available in Andretta.These formed an interesting contrast to the stoneware pieces he made and the range of glazes he used.
In 1971 Sardar Gurcharan Singh was awarded a silver plaque by the All India Ceramic Society for his services to the pottery industry. In 1974 he was recognized as the best artist of the year by the Sahitya Kala Parishad, a national art body. Almost 80, Sardar Gurcharan Singh was still working nearly full-time and insisted it was his work which provided the zest and enthusiasm with which he faced each new day. 1979 saw the publication of his book Pottery in India, a much-needed text on the subject.
Being a founder member of the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society started in 1921, Sardar Gurcharan Singh initiated the first All India Studio Potters Exhibition in 1983, to be held annually. These exhibitions proved invaluable for studio potters in India as they provided an opportunity not only for individual expression but also for comparison with other potters. They also helped people realize that a large group of talented studio potters were beginning to emerge.
In 1983, Mansimran and his wife Mary had made the move to settle in Himachal and start the Andreta Pottery and Crafts Society, training local potters, who worked in red clay, to create contemporary glazed earthenware. Nearly 90 years old but never one to be daunted, Gurcharan Singh divided his time between Delhi and Andretta. Both father and son remained the moving force behind the All India Studio Potters exhibitions and continued to exhibit in different cities.
People were always amazed at Sardar Gurcharan Singh's vigour and enthusiasm in the face of the many difficulties he had encountered, being a studio potter at a time when studio pottery was a completely unknown art form. Materials were not readily available, or if they were, they were not standardized. Everything had to be personally supervised, glazes mixed with care or they would not melt in the kiln. The cost of materials was high because of low market consumption.
Delhi had begun to expand and the location of the pottery came under threat. Factory Road was now surrounded by residential enclaves and markets. The unit was threatened with closure, for the government to develop more land, and the continued existence of a small pottery unit in what was a prime urban location was no longer viable.
Inspite of being actively involved with a variety of pottery related activities, Sardar Gurcharan Singh continued appealing to various bodies to help save his pottery. He finally realized that all his efforts were futile and it was only a matter of time before he would have to close down the pottery and vacate the premises.
Said noted sculptor Professor Shanko Choudhuri on the occasion of Gurcharan Singh’s eighty-fifth birthday, “Probably the greatest contribution made by Sardar Gurcharan Singh was to spread consciousness of the beauty of handthrown pottery and also the awareness that it can be made by anybody, given time and devotion. It is largely due to him and his son that we have a sizeable number of studio potters today. In the thirties it was only Gurcharan Singh and Delhi Blue Art Pottery. It would be a pity if after decades of hard labour, an institution, which has served the country, its artists and craftsmen so well and is a matter of pride for the capital, should have to be shut down”.
The struggle for retaining the pottery had been going on when fate dealt another cruel blow to the family. Sardar Gurcharan Singh’s wife Chattar Kaur passed away in 1987. Always a sprightly and welcoming mother figure for the students, friends and visitors who thronged the pottery, Chattar Kaur had been by Sardar Saheb’s side for 65 years. She had shared every vicissitude, helped him to take decisions, presided over the wide family circle with warmth and dignity. The Singhs never missed a birthday or any other function in the family. It was a loss for the family and for all the friends who visited the pottery regularly.
So much a part of the history, aesthetic and culture of the newly developed city, Delhi Blue Art Pottery, its kilns and the beautiful bungalow that housed the showrooms would finally have to be closed down.
In 1990 the kilns of Delhi Blue were finally extinguished and the pottery was closed down. With the help of some friends, Sardar Gurcharan Singh was able to retain one third of the land on which the pottery was situated. This land was to be converted into flats, thereby not losing everything. Two thirds had to be surrendered for the use of the hospital. The beautiful old house with its rambling gardens was demolished to make way for the new block of flats – The Delhi Blue Apartments.
Sardar Gurcharan Singh remained philosophical, battling on with a quiet sense of dignity that did not permit him to take his problems to a court of law. “It is humiliating for an artist to be dragged through the courts”, he said, “I have the work that I love. That is the secret of my long life. You have to be humble to be a true craftsman because it is all a gift, nothing is truly yours. If you get pleasure out of life and work and get pleasure out of nature, what more do you want? Life is not for money making, life is for living. It all depends on how you look at it. Life needs introspection, just as the centering of clay on the wheel is important in our craft.”
In 1991 Sardar Gurcharan Singh received the Padma Shree award from the President of India for his contribution to the field of ceramics. It was in the same year that the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust was founded by him. The pottery studio started to function in the basement complex of the new, Delhi Blue Apartments, adjacent to the old site at Factory Road.
Sardar Gurcharan Singh took a deep interest in this field of artistic endeavor. After the Trust was set up and students started working he was always available, for help and encouragement. Watching and listening to a man of such vast experience was a blessing for the new entrants. He loved exhibitions, attending as many as he could and commented candidly on the pottery displayed. He continued to exhibit his own pots, always trying to keep their prices low so that as many people, as possible could buy them. However humble the pottery, he venerated it. He would hold his hands out for a pot, examine it carefully from top to bottom, before bestowing praise or criticism.
On one of his regular visits to Andretta, on the morning of 18th August 1995, he went down to the pottery as usual and did some glazing. At lunch-time he returned to the house, had lunch and lay down to rest. At 4 P.M. one of his helpers, went to him with a cup of tea- Sardar Gurcharan Singh was no more. With no one by his bedside, he had passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was 99 years old.
Sardar Gurcharan Singh Saheb’s ashes were immersed in the holy river Beas, which flows past the Gurudwara at Kiratpur Sahab, 200 kilometers from Andretta. He returned to the earth he had loved and which he had fashioned with such care into thousands of beautiful shapes.
Sardar Gurcharan Singh was a potter before most of us were born. He introduced studio pottery in India and due to his longevity saw it grow and flourish. Till the end, this pioneer and veteran potter was still working and felt uncomfortable if too far away from his creative medium - clay. He lives on in the hearts and hands of all those who were privileged to have known him and learnt from him. He enriched not just one sphere of creativity, like all true artists, he enriched the world.