International Artist Residency: an interview with Copper Sounds

For the fourth International Exchange between BCB and Indian Ceramics Triennale (ICT), Copper Sounds visited India.

They took part in a ten-day artist-led residency at Art Ichol Centre in Maihar with three leading experts, Ramesh Kesavan, Hariharan Kanagumeyyappan and Sumana Chandrashekar to explore the links between their sonic ceramics and the ghatam, a traditional Indian clay instrument.

They presented their sonic installation Sequenced Ceramics at ICT 2024, Common Ground, their first international exhibition. This installation was also exhibited as part of Award at the 2023 Biennial.

Learn more about the International Exchange programme.



“The whole experience went beyond any expectations. Going to a new country and one as culturally amazing as India meant expectations would have held us back really. We didn’t want to force anything or impose an idea on the residency or the outcomes, so we were excited and keen to experience and learn from everyone and everything around us.”

-Copper Sounds



What were your expectations before going to India? Was anything different from what you expected?

There was excitement rather than expectation. We knew who we would be collaborating with over the residency and what their skills were. Ramesh and Hari are skilled potters who specialise in ghatam making. Sumana is a skilled musician and classically trained ghatam player. We knew we would be staying at Art Ichol with access to a ceramic studio. So I guess we expected we would be making ceramic instruments and recording some music and sounds. But to be honest for us it was quite open to go in any direction. From the communication we had with Sumana, Ramesh and Hari it seemed everyone was open-minded. We were unsure how it would unfold, in a good way.

In regards to the exhibition at ICT, because it was our first international show, I don’t think we realised how much paperwork and time it would take to send our artwork to another country. But eventually, we had all our documents in order and dropped it at the shipping company. We thought the most stressful part was now dealt with, but then our work got stuck in customs and didn’t actually arrive at Arthshila in Delhi until the day before the opening of the exhibition! So that was quite stressful and definitely something we didn’t expect or want to happen. But thanks to all the help of the volunteers we managed to get it up in record time and ready for the opening night!



What new skills did you develop through this project?

We learnt and experienced so much during the residency. Not only the creative practical skills but also the other skills that are not necessarily as glamorous but are vital for a project like this.

Ramesh and Hari showed us how to make not just ghatams but all manner of ceramic instruments – udus, flutes, xylophone, bells, etc. We learnt that a low firing temperature is better for sound. This is the opposite of what we thought as we have always high-fired our objects in the past.

The resident artists at Art Ichol – Milan Singh, Sandy Lohani and Uday Singh, were using paper clay to make some of their sculptures. We also used some to make a large Udu, which created an interesting metallic sound. Our favourite new technique we learnt was the paddling you do on the ghatam after it is off the wheel and the clay has firmed up. This technique involves placing a rounded tool within the pot and then hitting the outside of it with a wooden paddle. This technique compresses the clay evenly throughout the vessel, which is essential for producing an even pitch. It also creates the round bottom of the ghatam.



How was your first experience showing your work internationally?

There was a lot to learn about the logistical aspects of shipping artwork to another country. We now have a greater understanding of the level of communication that needs to take place between all parties involved in a big international exhibition. If we were to show our work in another country again we now feel we would be a lot more prepared.

Another important lesson – don’t take anything for granted. Things that are easy to acquire in the UK were actually quite hard to find in Delhi. For example, we use some paving slabs in our installation and it felt a bit silly to ship a load of paving slabs to the other side of the world. We thought we would get some in India, but couldn’t get hold of any in Delhi! We have found there are usually alternative materials and solutions available. You need to get local advice and input to solve the problem.

Before we left the UK we were chucking loads of music equipment into our bags in the hope of being able to make and record some sounds while we were in Maihar. It wasn’t till we set up at Art Ichol that we realised we had sort of packed a portable recording studio. This isn’t so much a skill, but a realisation that wherever we go in the future we can record sounds and make music in a make-shift music studio.



Tell us about your experience collaborating with international experts.

The residency at Ichol gave us the opportunity to collaborate with Sumana, Ramesh and Hari. Not to mention the other amazing people in the local area who are doing great things. The residency could be seen in three parts. The first part being the making of ceramics sound pots and instruments. Playing and recording the sounds would be the second part. The third part was experiencing the rich local and regional culture that has a long history of music.



What aspects of these traditional methods will you take forward into your practice?

In some ways, it was intimidating to be working with potters and a musician who are such experts in their field. Hari and Ramesh are incredibly skilled throwers who have both been throwing clay forms on the wheel from age five. They showed us the various processes and techniques needed to make a ghatam. We aren’t that experienced on the wheel and it’s like anything, to really learn and understand how to do something you need to practise over and over again.

However, there are so many processes that we can take inspiration from and want to experiment with in our practice. Such as lowering our firing temperature to achieve a different sound. Also, using natural pigments and fine particle slips to decorate our ceramics. Another technique that we were particularly fascinated by is the paddling technique to compress the clay. This creates the form and produces a more even sound from the ceramic.

Musically there were a number of interesting concepts and ideas we discussed and looked at during our time at Art Ichol. We were particularly interested and inspired by the Carnatic style of rhythmical singing. Within that style, each instrument has their own set of sounds. These vocal sounds and patterns are used to teach others how to play instruments and communicate rhythms. When we started recording with Sumana, it made us think about how we take certain rules of our Western musical traditions for granted. For example, songs having a consistent tempo the whole way through – this is something we are now very keen to play and experiment with. Also we learnt about how certain pieces of music are only played at certain times of the day.



How will this experience impact your artistic practice?

Beyond the practical and technical aspects, this experience has given us confidence in our abilities. We were able to apply our method of working in different situations. We were also able to collaborate and create something interesting and meaningful in a short amount of time. This required us to be adaptable and malleable to ideas that start forming from multiple sources. It has made us want to explore other examples of how ceramics are used musically in other cultures and at different points in time.

As mentioned above we were particularly inspired by Carnatic music and the different musical traditions we experienced while in India.

One tool we took with us was our DIY sound lathe. This is a tool we have made to etch sound waves into clay as they spin on a wheel or a turntable. In the past, we have played set frequencies through sound lathe. While at Art Ichol, we put a contact microphone onto a ghatam that Sumana was playing and cut the rhythms she was playing into a ceramic record in real time. It was a real eureka moment as we were carving ceramic sounds into a ceramic disc. This is something we want to develop further into a finished piece of work.



Are there any future collaborations with the connections you made while in India?

For us, the residency was just the start. There is lots more to come from the connections made in India. The most immediate outcome, which is already underway, will be working with the tracks we recorded while we were at Art Ichol. Our eventual goal would be to develop some sort of live set with Sumana. We would also like to further develop the sound lathe tiles carved using sounds created by Sumana on the Ghatam. The eventual dream is to get Sumana over to the UK to try and play some shows together.




This project is kindly supported by Arts Council England, Art Ichol, British Council and Henry Moore Foundation.

The International Exchange programme is an exchange of culture, artistic practice and knowledge between artists working in clay in the UK and India. It is a partnership between British Ceramics Biennial and the Indian Ceramics Triennale, beginning in 2017. With shared objectives in expanding innovative and international ceramics practice, BCB and ICT have become catalysts for sector developments, successfully facilitating three international artist exchanges to date.