Muted tones, loud wisdom

Muted tones, loud wisdom

An afternoon with Abbas Bhai's hypnotic wheel. 

Abbas Bhai’s serene studio is a sanctuary in the heart of bustling Dharavi. The motion of the potter's wheel sent me into a trance while the earth being moulded brought me back. I don’t know whether it was his strong presence or witnessing his process but the rest of my day was spent tranquilly, despite being confronted with the raging city. 

He is an 8th-generation potter, his ancestors belonging to Kutch, Gujarat. He trained to be in the merchant navy. Three days before leaving for his posting in Germany, something came over him and he decided against it. ‘I don’t know, it was just a feeling from within,’ is all he would say after I pestered him for reasons that instigated this change. The artist’s intuition is my best guess. He has a deep love for his craft, it brings him freedom, peace and respect. ‘Work of mud is considered to be of the highest order in our religion, it is honest, tough and soft at the same time,’ he says. The mud seems to mould him as much as he it, making him tough and soft with it. 

Cats playing in a basketCats playing outside his studio



He told us stories of his art, taking us on all the adventures his bravery took him on. ‘20 years ago, I made a sculpture of a bare-breasted woman feeding a child,’ he began, ‘my mother was not pleased, to say the least. Muslim potters aren’t allowed to create sculptures and idols to begin with… especially such that are considered to be “profane”. I was breaking all the rules but my grandfather was on my side. He sensitively explained to her that breaking the rules is part of my job description as an artist.’ He still holds on to this sensitivity and wisdom. He creates works according to the demands he receives, usually from upper-caste, upper-class Hindu homes. Flower pots, plates, vases, and even idols of Gods. A Muslim man creating sites of worship for Hindu believers. A breath of respite in this polluted climate. 

‘We are the only Muslim family in this Kumbharwada (potters village) and we have never faced problems with our neighbours. We celebrate everything together, and help each other live,’ he says. ‘This is what I love about Dharavi the most. Our doors are always open, and our movement into each other’s living spaces isn’t mediated by a doorbell. In fact, there is no concept of a space not being shared. How beautiful is that? It will all be lost if the redevelopment happens.’ He has a particular vision for the redevelopment which is in line with how the potter’s spaces were redeveloped in China. Residences in the middle, sprawling out to workshops and then the shops. He is vehemently against the separation of living and working spaces. ‘The costs rise a lot and I have seen people’s businesses shutting down due to moving out of here. Dharavi is the heart of Mumbai, what will happen once that stops beating?’ 

His heart seems to be located in this studio, the wheel becoming an extension of its rhythm - the pots an extension of him. He seamlessly fit in with the earth, giving life to his beloved creations.


Abbas bhai next to his creation. He was affectionately resting his hand on it throughout our conversation.Abbas bhai next to his creation. He was affectionately resting his hand on it throughout our conversation.