The Kendi man can
This will come as a shock to post-millennials: In the world BP (Before Plastic) water was served in earthenware and it was free.
The traveler didn’t need to spend to quench her thirst - just pause outside a householder’s gate and gargle from a kendi.
These were the plump pitchers kind folks set at the roadside to refresh passers-by, a courtesy now seldom seen. They were also common in the kitchen.
“As children in Jombang where my family farmed we always used a kendi which had been filled from a gentong (large pot) of water drawn from the village well,” said Malang potter and academic Ponimin before heading overseas to run workshops.
“Although the water was never boiled I can’t recall us getting sick. It was always cool because the clay was porous letting the kendi sweat.
“Sadly I no longer use kendi in my house. Instead, like most Indonesians, we buy water in plastic bottles from a factory. I regret the loss of tradition, but who’d now trust water from an open well?”
Jombang, about 80 kilometers south-west of Surabaya was the ideal place for the future craftsman to discover his talents; Ponimin believes these came from a great grandfather he never met.
Jombang’s versatile earths are used to make bricks and tiles along with functional pots. Ponimin likes the plasticity and the way the Brantas riverbank clays hold their shape. They also contain little grit, which can cause complications during firing - often done in the open air rather than closed furnaces.
He doesn't have a wheel, preferring the coil system where cords of rolled clay are built into shape using the fingers to smooth and pinch. He claims this allows for more creativity while a wheel makes for uniformity.
The drinker’s lips don’t touch the kendi which is filled from the top and sealed with a clay bung. Instead it’s held above the head and tilted to pour the water down into the open mouth through a spout.
This can be a messy process so some prefer to decant into a throwaway cup which defeats the idea of reducing plastic pollution of the environment.
The kendi is much more than kitchenware. According to Ponimin, who teaches at Malang State University where he pushes his students to look at the local culture and landscape for inspiration, the name comes from India and the Sanskrit term kundita.
The skill of sculpting clay, hardening through fire and creating a water container goes back almost 30,000 years in Europe and 20,000 in China. Archaeologists regard it as one of the signs of our ancestors moving from a nomadic life to settlements and the development of technology.
In Indonesia images of kendi can be found on temple sites from before the 13th century Majapahit era, including Borobudur in Central Java.
Kendi are still sold in traditional markets outside the urban centers. Many have been coarsely finished but occasionally an unusual clay or firing technique can produce blemishes of beauty; russet blisters and ocher splashes can make the earthenware look more like a photo of deep space.
A few artists are also manipulating the form and adding decorations for the tourist trade, but Ponimin retains the original style and incorporates it into his other works. These include large female figures made from terracotta beads threaded through wire through to smaller semi-glazed objects. These usually feature cherub-like figures scrambling up the sides.
These were first introduced a decade ago in an exhibition called Reach of No Hope, a large social commentary installation.
At the time he explained his work this way: “The poor also want to succeed, to have materialist goods, but they get trampled. The few who do reach the summit discover it's an illusion and what they hoped to find isn't there.”
The urchins can still be found in his art, but now play a lesser role than the water containers.
“The kendi has long been a symbol of life in Javanese culture and for many it’s sacred,” he said. “For some it represents the womb and the water as semen.
“When a baby is born it’s bathed in water from a kendi. When a person dies a kendi is left on the grave or buried so the deceased can travel safely to whatever lies beyond. Graves are watered from a kendi.”
They are also used in theater. Malang choreographer Robby Hidajat has developed a dramatic contemporary dance featuring kendi and other pots.
Ponimin flew to New Delhi late last year to run workshops, the second time in India. He’s also exhibited in Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Extra income comes from works commissioned by theme park investors and housing developers.
Curiously their ideas aren’t drawn out of the Archipelago’s rich cultures but from European history and American films. Statues of dinosaurs, Roman gladiators, Egyptian pharaohs, Greek gods and teams of galloping stallions are in demand.
These are supposed to add quality and attract buyers who want to distance their flash new homes from the crowded kampongs where their parents drank from kendi. Instead they display their nouveau riche credentials.
For Ponimin that work is income, not art: “What I want to do isn’t for sale.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 March 2018)