On July 1, 2015, I was on a plane returning to the southwest coast of India, to the state of Kerala. I had been invited to continue my work with Amrichi Multi Modal Applications and Computer Human Interaction (AMMACHI) Labs and the Live-in-Labs program at Amrita University in Amritapuri. AMMACHI Labs is a research institute that aims to better society through technological innovation, and Live-In Labs is a subsidiary of AMMACHI that exposes youth around the world to problems faced by rural communities in India.

I had become involved with this organization in the summer of 2014, when I traveled to Kerala as a graduate student of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Although my focus of study was ceramics, that summer I was invited to tag along with the textiles department on a service-based project led by one of my primary advisors, Deborah Carlson. Carlson had been doing work year-round for a textiles operation run by the Amritapuri Ashram, one of many programs facilitated by world-renowned humanitarian and spiritual leader Amma (Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī). At the ashram, a group of women create items from donated fabrics that are sold worldwide to raise funds that go toward Amma’s numerous charities.

Meaghan’s student shows her Bird Puja Lamp post-firing. Mananthavady, Kerala, India, 2015. Photo by author.Amiritapuri was the first and is still the major ashram of a long list of international ashrams that Amma runs. Located in the rural area where she was born, it sits on a thin peninsula covered in coconut trees. The Indian Ocean is to the west, a river to the east, and just past the river, Amrita University sits on the mainland. It is a hot, humid, lush area, where people stay true to traditional customs. Amiritapuri is known for fishing because of its abundance of waterways, which would lead one to think that clay would also be abundant and used for making things. Yet when I did my initial research on the region, clay did not seem to be a particularly popular medium. 

At the ashram, my group’s plan was to aid the charities supported by the organization Embracing the World (a global network of regional humanitarian organizations) as well as the Empowering Women Program of AMMACHI Labs. My role was to provide feedback and critique the products, designed and manufactured there for a global market.

Our plans changed quickly when our contacts learned of my interest in and knowledge of ceramics. With Amma’s blessing, I was immediately put to the task of creating an introductory-level ceramics curriculum for the women of the mountain village Mananthavady, where there was already an established potter who could help us source local clay and other materials. I was to stay in the village to conduct a ceramic workshop. The women of this area had already taken a workshop in fabric painting, led by another group from Amma’s ashram, so they were open to this new (and unexpected) opportunity to learn more skills.

Our group’s base was a small ashram and primary school. We traveled up into the mountains by van and were given room, board, and a hall to teach our classes in.

Mananthavady was much different from the coast. Although it was lush, it was cooler and more humid. The region is known for its produce, such as tea, ginger, coffee berries, and formerly, cocoa pods. Many of the local children in the school were the sons and daughters of farmers, rickshaw drivers, and construction workers. Our group worked with  the students’ mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.

For two weeks, I worked with the women to establish their basic understanding of clay. I was happily surprised to find that the women not only enjoyed the medium, but they also were eager to learn more. After observing local customs, we determined that our best plan was to make simple, traditional items to sell locally, items such as decorative puja lamps—oil-burning lights that are popular for shrines in a family’s home.

The biggest issue we needed to tackle was access to a kiln. The closest one, belonging to the male potter, was ten kilometers away and could only be reached by car or rickshaw. Ten kilometers may not seem so great a distance, but the roads were poor, and these women had very limited access to vehicles. As well, it would be considered socially inappropriate for the women to do business on their own with the male potter. They would need to bring a male relative along—yet another obstacle to their production and self-sufficiency. I wanted them to have access to what they needed with as little assistance from outside entities as possible. After the workshop, I told AMMACHI Labs about these obstacles, and it was arranged for me to return to the village and help construct a community kiln.  

The Mananthavady Project of the summer of 2015 started off with a two-week workshop that built on techniques that the women already knew toward creating more complex forms. We focused on product development and quality of craftsmanship. The women worked on refining items to be sold in the local marketplace and eventually in international markets. As they continued to hone their skills, they were able to pick up on the subtle qualities that make ceramic products successful, such as consistency in the weight and thickness of the walls of the forms, aesthetically appealing proportions, interesting surface textures, and ergonomics.

Mananthavady women cleaning and setting up stacks of bricks in preparation for the next layer of the kiln.

The next two weeks of the workshop we devoted to kiln-building, firing, and the development of marketing strategies. Because of time constraints, we started building the kiln, an updraft wood kiln, right away. The design, based on one at UMass Dartmouth, was perfectly suited to the needs of these women. They could fire many small, low-fire items without being away from their homes or other responsibilities too long. And, the simple design of the kiln meant that it could be built in just three days.

All the materials were sourced locally, which also helped us get underway immediately. The women were so enthused about building the kiln that I found myself only directing its construction. They mixed the cement and laid the bricks themselves. A group drew the kiln plans layer by layer to document the kiln’s anatomy for future reference. Because the walls were made of a single layer of bricks, future repairs would be easy. Situated in a building that serves as both an ashram and a school, this kiln potentially could also be used to teach the students another traditional art form.

Once the kiln was complete, we loaded it with the women’s items. As with the kiln’s construction, I only directed the firing. I taught the women about firing charts and determining the internal temperature by looking at the color and color changes inside the belly of the kiln. I explained that to avoid thermal shock and breakage, they would need to gradually build up the heat. Their first firing went impressively well. Many of the women use wood as cooking fuel, so they were applying knowledge they already had to their ceramics firing.

After the work was fired, we talked about surface treatments and marketing. Since the women were not making items related to food consumption, they could either leave the terra-cotta exposed or paint it with acrylic paint. Budget, access to materials, and time constraints prevented us from venturing into glazes and other ceramic-based surface techniques. Many of the women already had experience with fabric painting and some with traditional Kerala mural painting, so by the end of my stay, they were already discussing the possibility of hosting painting workshops within the group.

Their biggest challenge at this point was to market their products for a profit. There is a tourist market in the region, but to increase their income, they wanted to branch out into larger markets. We discussed branding, documenting their process and products, and using the Internet to market their work. By the end of the workshop, they had created Amrita’s Mother’s Touch, a Facebook page for their cooperative.

Earthenware lantern, handbuilt and decorated with acrylic paint. 3 x 3.5 x 3.5 in. Photo by Jaya Kumar K.My desire to disseminate information on the medium of ceramics and to aid people through it was what led me to pursue a graduate degree in ceramics. These two workshops not only provided these women with a means to support themselves and their families, but it also gave them some control over their use of the medium, which has historically been male-dominated in their culture. In the fall of 2015, after my return from India, I saw a photograph on Facebook of the women firing their kiln. As I studied the image, I realized it was taken after our initial firing of the kiln. That let me know that they were using their new knowledge and love for ceramics.