Two Articles on Projects with the Kansas City Bengali Association (KCBA)–Finally published in completion in 2 articles, by Laura Harris Gascogne

Below is the content of both articles, (separately published and duly noted) in their entirety with corresponding photos featured in each article. A caveat: This format is not the exact manner in which the article appears in Neue Keramik Magazin, but how I put the content together on my blog for easier reading.

A First in Cultural Bridging: The Saraswati Project

(First article published  in Vol. 5/2013 of a leading German Journal on Ceramics Neue Keramik Magazin, pg. 66.  The article is published in English and German)

 Doors Opened:

In the late part of 2010, I was introduced to a member of the Kansas City Bengali Association at my office where I teach Ceramics at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. The member of the local Association was Mrs. Bhaswati Ray, who told me she had come looking for advice or a means to make a Hindu deity for the Saraswati Puja in February of 2011. Saraswati  is the goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, and one of the foremost goddesses in the eastern Indian state of Bengal.

My friendship  with Ray began after I shared accounts of my post-graduate travels in India during the late 1990’s to go “temple-hopping” and to pursue my longtime interest in Indian sculpture, which had been influential in the development my own figurative work. For nearly two decades, I had been enamored by the twisted and contorted figures that adorned historical Hindu temples whose main purpose served as a visual narrative to those who could not read.  After we spoke, I enthusiastically told Ray I would make the piece. At first she appeared both shocked and relieved.  I then realized that it might not be appropriate for me, a non-Hindu, to make a ceramic sculpture for a religious ceremony. I voiced my concerns to Ray, but she seemed more concerned about the time frame to make the piece than whether I was qualified. In Bengal, most deity sculptures are made out of terracotta over an armature that is never fired. Historically, sedimentary or riverbed clay has been so widely used in Bengali art and architecture because it is a ubiquitous material. The state of Bengal is comprised largely within the Gangetic floodplain, an area very rich in clay soils. During pujas, unfired deities are paraded through crowds of pilgrims in the streets to the temple where they receive blessings by Brahmin priests. The sculptures become “transformed” in the process from a material thing into the embodiment of the deity itself. Following the ceremony, the sculptures are carried down to the Ganges, where they are immersed in the holy river and allowed to disintegrate, a symbol that the cycle of life is flowing and not stagnant. Such practice has taken place for thousands of years by devout Hindus, but never a non-Hindu like myself.

Beginning Project #1: The Saraswati Project

There were only two months to create and fire Saraswati, which meant it had to be smaller. Over the next few weeks, I met the president of the KCBA, Debashis Haldar. I was given some parameters to follow to insure the piece would fall within proper religious protocol. It was expressed that the figure had to be light in color, carrying her symbols of the arts and wisdom.refining detail

above: refining detail

moulding the figureabove: moulding the figure; below: adding clothing

propping the figure Saraswati using porcelainous stoneware that I use with my larger figurative pieces. I proportioned her out of be about two feet in height, using hollow parts put together. I did a lot of reading and studying on her to get to know my subject before I commenced moulding the basic elements, such as the base and general pose of the piece.

Frontal face Saraswatiabove: face

rough detailing of Vina and handabove: rough detailing of vina

Double arm detail saraswatiabove: torso detail

Base detail saraswatiabove:Base detail of Saraswati

Saraswati’s Transformation

The puja ceremony was a very moving and intimate experience for me. Even though I had visited a number of Hindu temples in  India as well as a few in the U.S., I had never been invited to be part of such a sacred rite. I was surprised that it got the attention of Hindus and non-Hindus alike, who attended the ceremony and approached me.  During the event and in the weeks that followed, I was interviewed by the local newspaper and by Vern Barnett, an interreligious leader for CRES (The Center for Religious Experience and Study) in the community who requested that I give an interview to put in his website. During the puja, I was asked to stand next to the sculpture and accept the blessing of a Brahmin priest. He did so, and then blessed the sculpture by marking it with pigment and adorning it with a special saffron cloth. Members of the congregation then told me, “It is no longer a sculpture; she is now a transformed goddess.”

Bengali Sculpture / Laura Gascogne

Above and below: Formal photos of Saraswati

Bengali Sculpture / Laura Gascogne

Saraswati with Bhaswatiabove: Gascogne and Bhaswati Ray

Second article features: The Durga Project

Durga side detail(The second article featured in Vol. 1/2014 of a leading German Journal on Ceramics Neue Keramik Magazin, pg. 62.  The article is published in English and German)

 Several more local articles covered the unusual  and unprecedented Saraswati Project . A month or two afterwards I was again approached by members of the KC Bengali Community. The asked me to make a Durga, for the largest and most auspicious religious ceremony to Bengali Hindus. I was given months of lead time, and was given the go-ahead to begin construction out of terracotta. The Durga Project would be the largest, most complicated  multi-sectional piece I had ever created.

Building Durga

The base alone for Durga and her lion consisted of 75 pounds of clay, which I partially hollowed out and carved after it set up over a week.

Lion baseabove: the 75 lb. base of the sculpture

Secondly, I built the body of the lion upside down, using a cardboard tube that I wrapped a slab around, letting stiffen before removing the tube. Afterwards, I commenced making the legs of the piece, by inserting a dowel rod through  large solid coils of clay. Later, I flipped the lion’s body upright so I could begin building Durga and determine her proper proportions  and positioning.

Durga Lionabove: the head of the lion added with support;

below: the lower half of Durga added to the lion’s back

IMG_6967

The lion remained very heavy after it was flipped upright, but I was able to refine the musculature and to visualize how Durga would be positioned. I started her bottom half, unattached, on the lion’s back. The weeks that followed were spent doing an intense amount of detailing and proportioning to insure the piece would be balanced and symbolically correct.

Durga partsabove: parts of the the ten armed figure; below: refining the details once together

Durga upper torso detailingHer ten arms were each individually made and positioned with the corresponding weapon or sacred object. Each of the sacred objects was researched and then created with mixed media, mainly clay and brass.

IMG_6957above: sculpting Durga’s face;

below: detailing the face of the lion

Lion face detailing

Firing a multi-part Sculpture

Once the figure was completed, I separated the statically side-seated figure from the lion, and separately loaded both of them at leather hard into gas cart kilns where they dried out for three weeks. Once the pieces had reached bone dry, the firing was allowed to candle for three days and then fire for two days.

Durga fired in kilnabove: Durga in the cart kiln

Durga Serves a Different Purpose

The ceremony, held at a local high school, was much larger than the Saraswati puja, comprised of local vendors, a huge langar, or lunch, following the blessings, and various bustling activities for the kids. There were two Durgas, as well as other members of the Hindu Pantheon, all richly adorned.  The purpose of my sculpture this time was not so much to be a part of the sacrament, but educational. It served as a reminder to Bengalis about the importance of interfaith tolerance and outreach, as well as cultural education, and the important use of terracotta as a material in Bengali Art.  These  aspects were addressed by a local public radio station during the event. In the final night of the festival, I was presented with the first ever Interfaith Award at a hugely attended presentation in the school auditorium. In a world so steeply divided on religious and cultural differences, I was humbled to be a small yet positive part of mutual change in the status quo through donating “The Saraswati Project” and “The Durga Project” to the KCBA.

Durga formal shotabove: Durga with weapons

11260_30above: Bhaswati Ray, Durga, and the artist

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One thought on “Two Articles on Projects with the Kansas City Bengali Association (KCBA)–Finally published in completion in 2 articles, by Laura Harris Gascogne

  1. I was Interviewed by a writer for the Kansas City Star & on Interfaith Subjects around the time I donated the Saraswati piece. He is also the founder of CRES (Center for Religious Experience and Study) in Kansas City. In addition to writing an article in the paper on the Saraswati project, he interviewed me in detail. Below is the content of that interview:
    INTERVIEW WITH LAURA HARRIS-GASCOGNE

    A pleasure to meet you Saturday Congratulations on Saraswati!
    Thank you… It was a real amazing experience and a pleasure to meet you there.
    . . . I also enjoyed looking at your website, http://www.lauragascogne.com/. I could see your affection for Indian forms, shapes, and twists, and even decoration. (Did you go to Khajuraho?)
    I did visit Khajuraho…via a 6 hour bus ride from Jhansi…I recall it being the hottest part of my time in India, but worth it completely.
    1. When you visited India during graduate school, what intrigued you about the contortive and mystical qualities of figurative Hindu temple sculptures?
    I found the figurative forms to be the most curious and auspicious elements of the temples, and also how much they varied from the central part of the country in the state Madya Pradesh down to the Dravidian South, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. What I found to be most intriguing was not only how the yogic forms often appeared anatomically impossible, yet how they flowed seamlessly in stone as if alive and moving. While “temple-hopping”, throughout India, I remember thinking how I might go about creating forms in clay that were inspired by this concept of precariously balanced forms, and yet have them possess a quality of weightlessness at the same time. For me, it’s almost impossible to deny feeling a spiritual presence when a heavy material such as stone or clay has been transformed into figurative piece in such a way, and that quality is what I most admired and wanted to metaphorically portray in my work.
    2. When you were given the chance to create a murti for the Bengali Assn, how did you decide on Saraswati?
    Bhaswati Ray, a member of the Association, came to the JCCC Art department in mid December 2010 seeking help in the making of a sculpture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of Art and Learning. When Bhaswati and I became acquainted, I informed her of my travels to India and my interest in Indian temple sculpture. Once I learned that she was from the east Indian state of Bengal, I remembered reading in Stephen Huyler’s Gifts of Earth how the ceremonial murtis (icons) there were made on a large scale from unfired clay and straw dug from the Gangetic plain, and then allowed to dissolve in a sacred rivers such as the Ganges following the ceremony. Since it was too expensive and difficult to ship a clay murti in time, I told Bhaswati right away that I would make the piece since I was comfortable handbuilding figure sculptures. Both Bhaswati and I found it to be an amazing consequence that I had recently begun to develop connections in Bengal a year or two earlier with the intent of studying folk terracotta sculptures there at some point.
    Bhaswati did not inform me that the piece was for Saraswati Puja, or the Holy day of Saraswati. She only told me that it was for the Bengali Community Center, that she needed the sculpture to be at least two feet in height, that it was fine to fire the piece, and that I had about a month to get it finished. It was only after the piece was built and fired that I learned the what the purpose of the sculpture was to be.
    3. From the advance notices, I understand you are Christian. If you are comfortable answering, how is your own spiritual life enriched by acquaintance with Hinduism? The Bengali Assn considers it a singularly important act, perhaps unprecedented, of interfaith comity for a Christian to create a Hindu sculpture. In what ways does your work express or model the affection folks of different faiths can have for each other’s traditions and expressions? Do you consider it an honor to have been asked to perform this service for the Bengali community here?
    It is correct that my childhood had Christian (Anglican-Episcopalian) roots, but I do not practise or subscribe to any organized religion. My stepfather of 20 years was English, and had done medical charity work on a Fulbright in Burma for a year, during which time he formally became a Buddhist. I was reared believing that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, and this was reinforced by the fact that my stepfather continued to practice Anglican Christianity. His interest and practise of Buddhist philosophy and meditation led to my own curiosity of Asian art and culture. So I guess that was the seed that started my lifelong interest in Asian, namely Indian sculpture, where, ironically, Buddhism had its origins.
    I traveled most of my childhood, which became rather eccentric after my mothers fifth marriage to my stepfather, a retired medical professor from England. I was twelve when we expunged everything we owned to live on a sailboat. The travels I partook in transformed me from a low-income non-cultured kid from Cobb County, Georgia into a curious explorer. So by the time I got into graduate school, going to India alone to visit temples was not too daunting. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the closeness to the culture I experienced living on $10 a day for two months there, traveling on crowded buses, trains and rickshaws. I stayed in everything from Buddhist monasteries in Sanchi to Dravidian Hindu-Shaivite hostels. Despite all this, I felt an affinity with the Indian people like I had nowhere else. Despite all the physical discomforts, I felt very comfortable with the culture. I guess my love of the Indian people and the art and culture of India is what made the Saraswati project for the Hindu Association an easy decision for me, and yet a very big honor and extremely humbling at the same time. The Puja was so beautiful and touching, and I could not help but feel a spiritual aura and connection during the ceremony. I developed a real friendship and connection with Bhaswati Ray throughout this whole process and her friendship and connection to the beautiful Bengali community in Kansas City has been so invaluable. I treasure it very much and always will.
    In my own figurative sculpture, I try to capture, for lack of better words, a universal spirituality without the confines of religion. I’ve tried tinkering with religion in my work, and it always seems to come out trite and dishonest. I guess it starts with the idea that the the beauty of the human form is spiritual in and of itself, and through appropriating the memories from my travels and life experiences, I am left with a lot of room for many possibilities in my work.

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