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In praise of clay

In praise of clay

The basic forms and types of earthenware design developed as early as the Bronze Age. Probably at the same time handicraftsmen started to apply a potter's wheel. The invention of a potter's wheel is so significant for the history of human civilization that it can only be compared with the invention of a wheel. Instead of clumsy thick-walled modeled utensils potters began to make rounded bowls and jugs with thin walls decorated with incisions in the form of meanders and broken lines, or adorned with paintings depicting images of animals and plants surrounded by geometrical figures – symbols of the sun, stars and waves. In the old days these ornaments bore a magic meaning. Having slightly changed, they remained in the Uzbek ceramics decor to this day.

In each region of Uzbekistan ceramics has its own peculiarities and traditions which have been developing for centuries, but the basic techniques applied by masters – kulols are alike everywhere. Ceramic pottery is shaped on the potter's gadget – charkh consisting of two wooden wheels fixed on a vertical pin. The potter-kulol sits in front of the gadget, rotating the bottom wheel with his feet. On the top wheel there is a clod of clay. As a rule, potter’s handicraft in Uzbekistan is passed down from father to son and every master has his own secrets of mix preparation. Some potters add lint of the reed into the loess clay, while others mix wool of the goat and bentonite – oily viscous clay. Some masters prefer taking clay from old earth mounds and keeping it in water for three years. Handicraftsmen do not use clay mixers – they sort out the clay by hand, purifying it of extraneous impurities, and puddling it with their legs.

Creation of a product in the potter's hands is like a miracle. Rotating a potter's wheel and continually moistening clay with water, master-kulol creates various forms. Kuza is a vessel intended for storage of water and oil, kuzacha is a pitcher for water as well as for washing, tagora is a deep basin for making dough, khurma is for souring milk, guldon is a vase for flowers, lagan is a dish for plov. The most labor-intensive process is making a khum – a big wide-necked pot for storing grain. Its size can reach man’s full height. To make such a huge pot a potter should master the "gumbulak" technique: the bottom part of khum is made on a potter's wheel and the rest of it is simultaneously molded by hand. And all that should be done very quickly, while the clay is still soft, otherwise there may appear cracks on the finished product.

In praise of clay

Using chizma technique a potter draws a simple ornament on wet clay with a stick or a needle. Some products are decorated with an ornament pressed with a stamp. After shaping, the earthenware is covered with engobe – white or colour clay grout. Then, with the help of a knife, the product is cut off from potter’s wheel, dried off on special shelves, decorated with painted patterns and at last glazed. For grinding glaze and its components potters apply a manual mill consisting of two granite millstones with an iron pivot. As a rule, masters themselves make glazes from different plants and minerals.

And then the potter proceeds to the most crucial moment in his craft – baking of the product in the khumdon kiln. Traditionally potter's kilns were thoroughly heated with dry cotton stalks. Nowadays the kilns are mostly heated by means of electricity or gas burners.

In many regions of Uzbekistan earthenware is ornamented with lead glazes, but the most ancient and highly valued by the experts is the blue glaze ishkor. The well-known centers of traditional blue ceramics of Uzbekistan are in Rishtan and Gurumsaray settlements in Fergana valley. Here the craft of ceramics appeared about a thousand years ago. The pottery of Rishtan masters – kuzgars, which is covered with bright blue glaze «ishkor», was in big demand along the whole length of the Great Silk Road, from China to Arabian Peninsula.

At the end of the 14th century, Amir Temur gave orders to send a few Samarkand masters to Rishtan. Their assignment was to ferret out the trade secret of Chinese porcelain with cobalt painting. As in Fergana valley there were no kaolin clay deposits, it was impossible to arrange porcelain manufacture there. But they started to use local sorts of clay to produce semi-faience covered with white glaze and dark blue painting, the so-called "chini" (“Chinese”) ceramics. On the Uzbek land the overseas style developed into something really peculiar. As far back as the 19th century the Rishtan potters still manufactured "chini" crockery, which was in great demand, since, according to ancient beliefs, the blue color of water and sky symbolized happiness. However, after construction in early ‘60s of the last century of Rishtan ceramic factory, which applied modern technologies and factory-made glazes, the ancient traditional techniques of ceramics manufacture started to disappear. It was only in the last decades of the 20th century that the secrets of the famous blue glaze were revived owing to enthusiasm and hard work of hereditary masters I.Kamilov and Sh.Yusupov, who had got his skills in ishkor glaze application from old Gurumsaray master Kh.Satimov.

In praise of clay

In the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains there grows so called gulyob herb. In autumn this herb is picked and burnt. From potash-containing ashes of the herb potters extract the main components of blue glaze. The cobalt glaze results from adding lead into the blue glaze (ishkor) mixture. Copper being added into the mixture imparts turquoise color to the glaze, whereas manganese embrowns it. Rishtan masters have revived not only ancient techniques of ishkor preparation, but also the forms and ornaments of ceramic painting. Masters Sh. Yusupov and his son Firdavs, M.Saidov, N.Kodirov, R.Usmanov, M.Azizov in traditional manner decorate lagans with "chorbarg" (a quatrefoil) and "bodomgul" (almond flower) patterns, pictures of pomegranate fruit and flowers. All these motives have been used from the ancient times for decoration of jugs – kumgans, vessels – choydishes and knives. The duck-shaped jugs – obdasta urdak or camel-shaped jugs – obdasta shuturbuyin are only typical of Rishtan.

Unlike Rishtan, Gurumsaray never lost the art of ishkor glaze painting. However, even here the ancient tradition was nearly broken with at the end of the 20th century. The well-known Gurumsaray masters H.Satimov and M.Rakhimov passed away in the second half of the century without leaving any successors. And only «the last of the Mohicans» master M.Turapov, already in his declining years, took V.Buvaev as his apprentice. At that time Buvaev was a young man, but ten years later he became a recognized master and a keeper of Gurumsaray potters’ traditions. Various earthenware made by V.Buvaev and master G.Masharipov, including lagans, little milk-jugs – kaymakdons and khurma-bowls decorated with "butsimon bezak" cruciform ornaments, «rooster’s crest» patterns and polygonal star-shaped ornaments, enrich expositions of many exhibitions. As a matter of fact, the Rishtan and Gurumsaray blue ceramics are instantly sold out directly from art exhibitions and potters’ workshops to museums and private collections.

In praise of clay

Another well-known center of the Uzbek ishkor ceramics is located in Khorezm region. The local blue ceramics appeared here in the 18th century, when Khiva plunged into intensive construction of khan palaces and mosques faced with patterned blue-turquoise glazed tiles. The Khorezm ceramics is mainly distinguished for its unique forms – the deep badiya-dishes having high vertical sides and rather high bottom, churning dishes – guppy, jugs for ablution – ibrik, oil lamps – chirok and, of course, khums of various sizes. Perhaps only khums are not decorated with patterns: they are just covered with sky-blue glaze. But badiya-dishes, lamps and vessels are entirely covered with noble and elegant oylanma islimy ornament in turquoise tints interspersed with white, green and dark blue colors. In the center of the product there is usually a rosette with a geometrical pattern, and the edges are decorated with an intricate strapwork representing floral stalks and helical shoots. Masters often include the images of knives, guns, combs, fishes, birds and snakes in the patterns of their ornaments. At the end of the 20th century a real mastery in manufacture of Khorezm ceramics was demonstrated by potters R.Matchanov and S.Atajanov from Madyr village. Today their traditions are maintained by master R.Matchanov's sons and numerous apprentices.

The famous Shakhrisabs ceramics nearly suffered the fate of full disappearance. Colored in the tints of bright-red, ochre and black colours, deep plates-shokoses and dishes of old masters were decorated with stylized flowers and cosmogonic spirals. The renowned kulol (ceramist) A.Muzaffarov was the last master of Shakhrisabs School. He carefully kept the old formulas of glazes and magic secrets of patterns. Fifteen years after his father’s death, his son Z.Muzaffarov started to restore bit by bit the art of his ancestors. Now three of his apprentices work in his shop together with him.

The town of Gijduvan, situated forty kilometers away from Bukhara, has been one of widely known centers of ceramic manufacture in Uzbekistan for nearly a thousand and five hundred years. The antiquity of the local potter's craft is proved by the eighth-century manuscripts containing the name of master Akhunjan. Nowadays the glory of Gijduvan is represented by the ceramics of Narzullayev brothers – the hereditary masters of the sixth generation. They are the sons of outstanding master Ibadullo Narzullayev. Kosa-bowls and lagan-dishes made by them on a potter's wheel and decorated with yellow, green, dark blue and red patterns testify to the revival of old traditions. A thick layer of lead glaze emphasizes the brightness of paints and makes the edges smear, thus imparting luster.

In praise of clay

The most ancient center of ceramic art developed in Samarkand region a few thousand years ago. The ruins of Afrosiab site preserved to our time various glazed ceramic bowls and a lot of clay figures of local deities and fantastic animals created by masters of legendary Sogdiana. Today, in Samarkand ceramics covered with brown glaze and decorated with yellow and green painting, we can recognize the ancient symbols of earth, water, sky, sun and stars. The apprentices and followers of the outstanding Samarkand master Umar Jurakulov create original forms of vessels, candlesticks and ashtrays decorated with modeled figures of fantastic dragons, and tiny terracotta piala-cups which are clinking like crystal when coming into contact with each other.

Tashkent oasis, which became peopled more than three thousand years ago, has always been a large center of craftsmanship. The decoration practices of the local masters had been changing in the course of time and by the 19th century there developed the original Tashkent style characterized by engraved ornament contours, patterns representing beautifully twining sprouts and sumptuous flowers, almonds and pomegranates. Nowadays these practices are also used by many masters of the Uzbek capital, but the family of hereditary ceramists Rakhimovs is of particular interest. The young potter Alisher Rakhimov seems to have absorbed with his mother’s milk all the talent and experience of six generations of family creative traditions. His grandfather, the well-known master Mukhitdin Rakhimov, devoted his life to in-depth study of ancient centers of ceramics, such as Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Fergana valley, and did much to revive ancient decoration techniques. Alisher’s father, master Akbar Rakhimov, is also a well-known ceramist. Proceeding with his father’s researches, he mastered the technology of ishkor glazes painting. The credit of founding a memorial-house of Muhitdin Rakhimov is claimed for him. In this museum, alongside with ceramics made in the family workshop, there are exhibited numerous archeological finds of ceramics brought by the master from scientific expeditions. Being guided by his father’s and grandfather’s experience, for several years Alisher has been working on creation of the original historical chronicle of the Uzbek ceramic art.

He has created series of Kushan glossy ceramics popular in the 1st–3rd centuries, pottery in imitation of those belonging to the Samanids’ epoch of the 9th–10th centuries, bluish-black vessels resembling the style of the Temurid’s epoch, bowls replicating the antique forms of Afrosiab site pottery with its clear graphic ornaments and Arabic inscriptions. Of course, the revival of Tashkent ceramics is of special interest to A.Rahimov. He has recreated the pottery with "needle" ornament peculiar to the works of masters of the 2nd century, the carved ceramics, which dominated in the region in the 5th century, and wide-spread thirteenth-century glazed greenish-yellow ceramics with colorless coating. Alisher has revived the lost style "kashgari", which was popular in Tashkent four centuries ago. The products created by A.Rahimov were successfully exhibited at numerous exhibitions in France, Germany and Japan.

In praise of clay

At all times in Uzbekistan, however, clay was used not only for making crockery. From clay khashpulakchi-masters made modeled toys. The history of clay bird whistle, as well as the history of ceramics in general, began about four thousand years ago. At the sites dating back to the late Stone Age, together with broken pieces of pottery, there were found fragments of clay bird whistles. These bird-shaped figures had a magic power. During celebration of Navruz – the day of spring equinox – people whistled to call spring rain, they pinned their hopes for the future crop on this «water of mercy». Nowadays a lot of craftsmen make penny whistles, but only a few of them manage to bring this simple toy to perfection. In the second half of the 20th century penny whistles brought the world fame to the skilled potter Kh.Rahimova from the old Uba village in Bukhara region. Now her apprentice and the keeper of national traditions K.Babayeva has her own apprentices, and she teaches them to model penny whistles in the form of rams with several heads, lions and horses with riders. Modeled in light clay and baked in a primitive potter's kiln, penny whistles are painted with bright red, green and dark blue speckles. Some figures of horses have prominences on their backs – certain rudiments from ancient images of winged horses.

Tribal talismans, such as small figures of fishes, birds, animals and fantastic creatures, originated from these clay penny whistles. Each of these figures had a mystical meaning. Samarkand handicraftsmen Kh.Baturov and S.Mukhtarov, the apprentices of the first national master of fine plastic figures A.Mukhtarov, converted ancient beliefs into figures of little funny dragons and camels, donkeys and horses with riders on them or harnessed to the carts full of melons and water-melons. Masters I.Fayzullin from Navoi and A.Mamurov from Fergana model genre clay toys very skillfully. The well-known Tashkent masters V.Shurkov and R.Mukhamedjanov use national traditions of fine plastic figures to create ceramic compositions representing either elders in a chaikhana, or cheerful musicians, or a conversation of friends sitting at the lagan of plov.

The masters – kulols know that gulyob – herb, used by them for making the famous ishkor glaze, has its roots far deep in the ground. Similarly, the traditions of the Uzbek ceramics are lost far in the ancient times.


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