The spirit of the bowl
ISKANDAR JALIL could be making
pots of money, if he chose to.
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:
Iskandar knows that as
young people are in a hurry. But pottery is a long process. You cannot
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."
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
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
And so he took the opportunity of the visit to ask his teacher, who
still works at Noritake, about it. The old
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.
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):
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."
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.
represent the first generation of potters in
Iskandar has many students, in pottery, design, textile. All these years as a potter, he was also a full-time
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
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.
is difficult to achieve.
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'.
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
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
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.''
01/08/01 The spirit of the bowl