This French artist spent a year with the glass makers of Firozabad to create an installation inspired by the pavements of India.
The Indian glass industry, active in India for over 2,000 years, has been a utilitarian effort, with the glass made for sale, be it flat-panes for windows, hollow shapes for containers, or bangles and other ornaments. (This is what glass has been about). Glass as art has practically been an alien concept—till now. Jean-Michel Othoniel, a French artist, has come to India and created The Precious Stonewall, an installation inspired by the pavements of India, with the help of glass blowers from Firozabad.
A five-tonne structure, The Precious Stonewall comprises 4,200 glass bricks and 150 glass bead necklaces, and stands 4.2 metres high. A monumental effort, not just in terms of sheer physical labour but in coordination and communication too, the installation took a year to make.
“I first came to Delhi in January 2009. Once here, I met a number of glass workers. I then made my journey to Firozabad (in UP), where I got the inspiration for this project,” Othoniel says. “In Firozabad, I met more glass workers and visited factories to see how they did things.”
Used to high-tech facilities in Murano and Venice in Italy, Othoniel was in for a surprise in Firozabad. “I went there to see their capabilities, and I was amazed. Glass is very big here, like in Mexico. It is cheaper than what’s produced in Europe. But what surprised me was the quality of the work. The glass is mass produced, but the quality is amazing. In France, we have either quality or mass production,” he says.
Othoniel has been working with glass since 1993, though he does not call himself a glass artist. He describes himself as an ‘opera director’, helped by talented people to turn his vision into reality. So, why glass? “There is a certain metamorphosis inside glass. At first it is a powder, sand, and then it becomes a liquid. Finally, it solidifies, carrying with it a spiritual quality that is reflected from within. In India, glass is connected to jewellery and gems. In France, they just use glass for basic things, like table tops.”
The Precious Stonewall is a massive cuboid made of amber-coloured glass bricks, covered in multi-coloured necklaces of glass beads. “The inspiration for the structure came from the bricks I saw on the sides of the road, waiting to be housed. I wanted to pay homage to this country of builders and the energy that permeates them,” the artist explains.
Some of the glass blowers have accompanied Othoniel to an exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. They speak with bemused expressions on their faces. “Something like this has never happened before,” one says. “Usually, we just make the products, the customer pays us money, and we’re done. This project took us a year, and now we are following it around on exhibitions. After this, it is going to Paris, and so will we,” he adds with an excited gleam in his eyes.