Wednesday, August 1st 2001
Life section

The spirit of the bowl

ISKANDAR JALIL could be making pots of money, if he chose to.

In his small terrace house in Jalan Kembagaan, where he has lived for most of his adult years with his wife and two children, the 61-year- old potter points to three small pieces of work which form the series he calls Square One, and says:

 ""I could make these by the hundreds and sell them. But I've made these three, and they are all I'll make.''

 He adds: ""I don't need that much money. I live simply. And all the works I've done, I've done them in humility and honesty. I don't churn out products.''

Iskandar knows that as Singapore's best-known potter, he could mark up the prices of his pieces and people would still rush to buy them. Tell him that there are young potters out there who are not nearly half as good as he is, but who charge twice the prices for their works, and he remarks: 

"These young people are in a hurry. But pottery is a long process. You cannot hurry it. 

"To just get the basics of the craft right, you need four to six years. To find out and understand your own style, you need another five to 10 years. And to become a good potter requires another 10 to 20 years." 

How does one measure these years in Internet time in the new economy, when "long-term' is what, for example, a stockbroker would describe a counter he has held for a few hours, not even a day? 

Iskandar himself was only pronounced a "master potter' by his 78-year-old sensei (teacher) in Japan last November.

He had been puzzled by the way he seemed to keep going back to the bowl and teapot each time he sat down at the potter's wheel. The bowl and teapot were the first objects he made out of clay when he first learned his craft way back in 1972, when he was in Japan to study ceramic engineering on a Colombo Plan scholarship. 

And so he took the opportunity of the visit to ask his teacher, who still works at Noritake, about it. The old man studied his bowls, then told Iskandar that he had finally arrived at the place where he started out. He had come full circle in his journey as a potter.  

"He bought three of my bowls,' Iskandar beams, as though he were still a child who had just been praised by his teacher. 

 He picks up a bowl in his living room, holds it in his hands, and says: "People say it's just a chawan. But nearly everyone uses a bowl for everything. Many have forgotten the spirit of the bowl." Chawan is Malay for cup.

In a book called Square One, published by the Economic Development Board to mark its 40th anniversary today, as well as to celebrate the master potter's 40 years in clay, Iskandar says in one of his many haikus (short terse poems, an art form practised by the traditional Japanese Zen poets):

"I see Nature, Mankind and the Creator all in the bowl. Closing my eyes, I see and feel the loving care of the person who will use the bowl I just made. A personal bond is struck, unbeknownst." 

In another haiku, he says: "I enjoy working on the simplest, yet the most challenging of forms - the bowl." 

Iskandar does not live the life of a Zen monk who goes round his neighbourhood each morning with a begging bowl - the devout Muslim, who had made the Umrah and Haj, tends the garden in the mosque behind his house instead - but he has reason not to fill his pots with gold. 

"I represent the first generation of potters in Singapore. So I must lay a very strong foundation. And to do that, you cannot think of making money. My students, the students of my students, they can ask for more money for their works. I feel this will be good for pottery in the long run." 

Iskandar has many students, in pottery, design, textile. All these years as a potter, he was also a full-time teacher, at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute, then at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Design, until his retirement two years ago. He also taught at community centres and the Nanyang School of Fine Arts. He has also been an external examiner for MARA Institute of Technology in Malaysia, and Curtin University in Australia. 

In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (1974), which is really an inquiry into values, author Robert M. Pirsig says that for any work to be good, the person producing it has to be doing so with an inner peace of mind, whatever the external circumstances. 

This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding, Pirsig says. The first is physical quietness, which is the easiest to achieve. Then there is mental quietness, when the mind has no wandering thoughts.  

This is difficult to achieve. 

But the hardest to achieve is value quietness, "in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire'. 

One approaches one's work with patience, care and attentiveness. 

Pirsig speaks of skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, but he may well be speaking of Iskandar the potter too, when he says: 

"There's a kind of inner peace of mind that isn't contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there's no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman's thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right." 

Iskandar who, incidentally, rides a Harley-Davidson, says in the book: "Clay is soft, pliable and very earthy. It teaches me humility and simplicity...The years of rigour and discipline are a religious lesson in humility." 

"As my twilight years approach, I continue to love clay not with the passion I used to have, but with quiet reverence, respect and dignity.''

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