Rida Bilgrami talks to ceramist Maham Anjum about mastering her craft, the symbiotic relationship between chef and ceramist, and how a plate is as important as the food it served on it.
Ceramist and designer Maham Anjum’s pottery studio in North London is bright and welcoming. With natural light permeating the windows and illuminating a stack of plates with speckled patterns and a deep turquoise glaze, it is the kind of space where alchemy emerges, conversation flows and time ceases to matter.
After Maham shows me around the lush green area surrounding her studio, the former home of late British art collector William Ohly, we settle down to chat. There are many things that set Maham apart, but her deft understanding of South Asian pottery traditions, her ability to beautifully marry form and function and her vision to introduce technicolour terracotta in some of London’s most renowned South Asian restaurants, such as Cinnamon Club, Hoppers and Darjeeling Express, have earned her accolades and the attention of both discerning diners and acclaimed chefs.
Growing up in Karachi, Maham was fascinated by the artisan potters making and selling utilitarian objects on the roadside near her parents’ home. However, it was summers spent visiting her grandparents in Lahore, her birthplace, that marked a turning point in her interest in the craft.
“My grandparents lived in an old colonial home in Lahore where meals were cooked in clay handis over wood fire. I remember thinking there was something remarkable about this earthenware, not just aesthetically, but because the clay also enhances the flavour of the food,” Maham reminisces.
Interested in pursuing art and design, Maham enrolled in PECHS College, the only educational institution in Karachi that offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the time. She learnt figurative painting and sculpture, but wanted to train specifically in ceramics. “I would educate myself by buying books on clay techniques from Itwaar Bazaar, an open-air Sunday market on the edge of town. I wasn’t even aware ceramics could be a viable profession until I met David Alesworth, a British art educator who was working in Karachi at the time. He encouraged me to seek training opportunities abroad,” says Maham.
Maham relocated to the UK in 1996 and went on to graduate with an MA in Ceramic Design at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, and an MPhil in Ceramics from the Royal College of Art, while also raising two young daughters as a single mother. She was inspired by the work of Dame Lucy Rie, an Austrian-British ceramist. “Lucy was also an immigrant to the UK, having fled the growing influence of the Nazis in Austria in the late 1930s. Her body of work consisted of hand-thrown pots and bowls in Modernist forms, and her designs were thin, sexy and elegant,” Maham says animatedly.
Soon after completing her education, Maham began working with Queensbury Hunt, a specialist in the design of tableware, after meeting co-founders David Queensbury and Martin Hunt at a design exhibition. “They became my mentors, and were instrumental in exposing me to the functional element of ceramic design,” Maham says.
A chance conversation with British-Indian chef and restaurateur, Vivek Singh ten years ago, marked Maham’s foray into designing tableware for restaurants. She produced a range of plates and bowls for Singh’s restaurant, The Cinnamon Club, introducing high-fired terracotta in vivid pigments and playing around with shapes and dimensions that best complemented Singh’s cooking.
“Terracotta is usually presented with a clear and white glaze. Dabbling in brighter colours is more complex from a production perspective but I tried to push forward a modern, chic aesthetic. This was the first time a fine dining restaurant in London had used technicolour terracotta,” Maham explains.
She describes the range as a marriage between her design sensibility and Singh’s vision and feedback. “Historically, chefs and potters have always worked in tandem. Chefs use the pieces everyday and their feedback is absolutely crucial in refining the proportion, colour and functional elements,” says Maham.
Food writer and chef Yotam Ottolenghi famously said the first bite of a meal is with the eye, followed by the nose. Central to Maham’s work with chefs is an understanding of how to transform the raw hand-built qualities of everyday-ware into tactile and visually stimulating pieces of art that can best showcase the ingredients and preparation of a dish.
“A plate is as important as the food it canvases, because dining is a sensory experience all-around,” says Maham emphatically before adding: “I truly believe that a bespoke hand-made plate can convey a chef’s culinary sensibilities in a more relatable manner, whereas a mass-produced porcelain pot can often come across as cold and impersonal.”
In 2017 Maham embarked on a creative collaboration with British-Indian chef Vineet Bhatia on designing and producing tableware for the 14-course tasting menu for his restaurant Vineet Bhatia London (VBL).
“Vineet is truly an artist who believes in taking diners on a journey with his menu. His imaginative style of cooking is Indian in essence, but is also very contemporary, so the plates needed to reflect that. Working with Vineet is a dream because he gave me the freedom to make imperfect objects.” One of the iconic tableware at VBL was the broken plate for serving momos. “I cut it when it was wet and then glazed the ends. We had to experiment in 11 different ways to make the final product look the way it does,” she says. In a similar fashion, Maham created a tilted surahi in an abstract form that has petit fours jutting out.
Maham’s recent work with award-winning chef Asma Khan who was featured on Netflix Chef’s Table was rooted in re-imagining the kullhar that is used to serve tea in Kolkata, to lend it a rich and earthy flavour. For serving masala chai at Asma’s restaurant Darjeeling Express, Maham created a low fired cup, and increased the height to accommodate a slightly larger portion of chai. “I developed ceramic techniques to match the dusky orange glow of the cups in Kolkata. Asma was born and raised in Kolkata and she wanted the cups to be as close to how she remembers drinking chai there.”
When I point out to Maham that despite the recent acclaim and commercial success that women ceramists have achieved in the UK, in general, women have often played a salient but undervalued role in ceramic production, particularly in Asian societies. They are involved in kneading clay, adding glazes, or as administrators in family workshops, but have limited access to kilns or opportunities for apprenticeships as production potters. How does she see that changing?
“I found this to be the case when I worked with potters in Umerkot, Sindh and Kutch, Gujarat, and to a lesser extent in Sri Lanka too, where I worked with women potters for over a decade,” Maham says reflectively.
Her work on craft revival with women in artisan potter communities in Biyagama, Sri Lanka, was focused on improving market linkages and enabling them to develop products for the British retail market.
“Local potters were being undercut by mass-produced ceramics and plastic goods with limited opportunities for international export, due to their outdated equipment. We trained them on techniques, like how to fire a terracotta body at a higher temperature, so the products would be more durable for kitchen use,” she explains. The project, which was supported by buyers such as Jamie Oliver and retail brand Habitat, also ensured that potters got paid 30% more for their work.
For Maham, the focus on craft revival is not about charity. It is about creating a market and demand for products that diners can trace back to the potters whose hands have moulded them. “We can’t move forward in this trade if we don’t lift up those who have dedicated their lives to perfecting this craft. It is about showcasing the design integrity and quality of the pottery, and also preserving these ancient techniques for future generations.”
Rida Bilgrami is a writer based in London. Her recent work has previously appeared in VICE, Eater and Gastro Obscura and focuses on the intersection of food, migration and identity.
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