Natalya's grandfather was a Qajar-dynasty royal from Iran. When Reza Shah, a former gunnery-sergeant of the Persian Cossaks, embarked upon a coup in 1921, this Qajar named Ali had had to flee across the Murghab to Central Asia due to mysterious animosities with the nouvelle regime. (The emergence of Reza Shah 'Pahlavi' was assisted by the British government, which wished to halt the Bolsheviks' penetration of Iran due to the threat it posed to the British colonial possession of India.) Eventually, Ali settled in Ferghana, marrying a Siberian woman just after the time of Lenin, and thus obtaining Soviet subjecthood. His son became an Aliyev, in his turn marrying a girl born of German WWII prisoners of war. Natalya, then, is quarter Iranian, quarter Siberian-Russian, and half Austro-German. She talks about her Siberian granny who brought her up; as well as her Qajar grandpa, who would mysteriously disappear for months, apparently walking to Iran with the aid of Turcoman smugglers even to his 60s, as part of futile attempts to recover family properties. In Ferghana, they think of Natalya as the Russian girl who speaks Uzbek like a native; she knows not only all the basement dives for dancing and drinking in the conservative Valley, but also all the cosmopolitan, mixed-ethnic, 'cool' people in the towns. Talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, she is taking us to the usta-khona (i.e. workshop, usta in Uzbek is 'master' and khona is of course 'room') of a Tatar with a Tajik name -- Rustom (Rustam) Usmanov.
Rustom Usmanov was the formidable art director of the Soviet-era ceramic collective; since independence, he has set up his own workshop. His reputation as a "top guy" precedes him -- he is a member of the Art Academy of Uzbekistan (i.e. well-connected in Tashkent), and a winner of the UNESCO Award of Excellence for his blue Rishton ceramic work. Usmanov's work is displayed in the Hermitage, and much sought after in the ateliers of Santa Fe (a place he visits once every year.) In consequence, we are not sure what to expect: post-modern studio, or official-showcase? In the event, Abdul-Malek pulls up on a broad street lined with one-story brick-front row houses, all lace and chintz, wrought-iron gates with clumps of marigold loudly proclaiming an abundance of little old ladies. We step in through the front door, Usmanova comes bustling up, greeting Natalya with obvious warmth. We are taken past simple rooms into the backyard, where several kilns, overgrown potato-patches, and persimmon trees compete for space with racks of unfinished and semi-finished pottery. A pigeon coos from its crooked cote nailed to the neighbor's yard.
The usta is busy laying out a pattern over brown paper. It seems a lot of his work consists of custom orders -- here someone has asked for a design of leaping fishes from a fountain to be copied onto jars, the draughtsman's immediate problem lying in accounting for the differences in curvature and perspective. Usmanov gravely shows two alternatives on brown drafting paper to Mr. M -- one with fat fish that will look better when viewed from an angle, the other with slim fish that appear proportionate only if one is head on. He holds the pieces up, turns them this way and that. Mr. M, still at an age seduced by surfeit, chooses the fat fish. "I think so, too", says the master, happily, afterwards reaching into a drawer for the consultant's fee -- a little majolica bell for Mr. M.
The most striking part of the workshop is its feel, if not quite that of a library, at least that of a printing-press, or book-binder's. Designs and materials lie scattered, and racks of yet-to-be-fired pots stack up against the walls. Brushes and palettes of bright colors lie on the tables; cupboards overflow with apothecary-jars of minerals. Here a half-painted tile, there a glob of paint fired to see what it will look like. Usmanov's children got decent professional educations, and his grandchildren now can get any privilege this society can provide; but his real gift to them has been that of creation -- everyone in the household can turn clay on the wheel, or transfer a pattern from card to cup. The 10-year-old who turns out a fluted bowl for us also hangs around listening intently as the elders talk about design and manufacturability. His path may well be that of a teacher, accountant, doctor or geologist, but all his life he will be able to dream of soft clay taking shape under his fingers.
At the end of the 14th century, Timur gave orders to send a few Samarkand masters to Rishton. Their assignment was to steal the trade secrets of the traditional blue-and-white Chinese cobalt porcelain. Unfortunately, there were no kaolin clay deposits in Ferghana, so the potters had to come up with an alternative that would please Timur.
Fortunately, a workaround to kaolin had been known in Iran and Arabia for centuries -- the invention of a white pottery glaze suitable for painted decoration, by the addition of an oxide of tin to the slip of a lead glaze, had enabled Middle-Eastern potters (who had no kaolin) to produce ceramics with the look-and-feel of Chinese porcelain at a fraction of the price.
The Moors took this technique of tin-glazed earthenware to Al-Andalus, where the art of metallic glazes was, well, tinkered with, and developed further. The name majolica for this kind of tin-glazed pottery comes from a garbled version of the island of Majorca, which was a trans-shipment point for earthenware sent to Italy from Aragon in Spain.
The techniques took further hold in Italy; the name faience or faïence in English – for tin-glazed pottery on a delicate pale buff body – comes from Faenza in Italy. Later in the 17th and 18th centuries, similar techniques would spread to Holland (delft) and Germany (dresden or meissen), where alternative clay-mixtures were also engineered.
The Uzbeks in the time of Timur developed techniques to use local reddish clays to produce a faience covered with white glaze and dark blue painting, beguilingly called chini in Uzbekistan, though technically it is majolica rather than (Chinese) porcelain.
In Ferghana, the glazes developed into something really peculiar. In the foothills of the Tien Shan there grows a plant named gulyob. It lookes somewhat like sagebrush. In autumn the plant is picked and burnt. From potash-containing ashes of the herb, dye-makers extract the main component of glazes, ishkor (a resonance with the subcontinental term kshar, alkali.)
The clay of Rishton is a brownish-red khoki surkh. The local potters consider their clay to be so good as not to require any preparation or processing. Other clays come from various nearby places: red from Chimion, yellow from Uchkurgan, a fire-resistant white friable clay from Angren. The necessary components for glazes are also abundant in the mountains or by the streams: quartz or ok gosh from Soh or Gurumsaray, white sand or ok kum from Shibrona. A dark-blue glaze results from adding lead (obtained from traders in Kokand) into ishkor, while adding copper imparts a light-blue color. From the slopes of the Pamir Alay range they extract manganese, or magl, necessary for the dark lilac and brown colors. Ferruterous clay -- jusha or malgash -- rich with ferrous and chrome oxides, make up yellow glazes. The most common colors of the Rishton palette - turquoise and ultramarine - come from lojuvard, the rock lapis extracted in the mountains of Badakhshan. You have to wonder about eating off this stuff. The earthernware of Central Asia was classified into platters (or lagaan, for the plov), bowls (or kosa for the shorpa), and jugs (or kuza, for liquids; this last similar phonetically to the kuja water-jugs of Bengal; the study of languages is filled with surprises.) Rishton pottery developed a distinctive vocabulary of color and decoration around these staple consumables.
The Soviet era nearly destroyed the traditional crafts of Ferghana; the policy of forcing craftsmen to work in collective factories churning out large batches of cheap or imitative works, and prohibition from producing individual works, had the effect of making many of the masters quit. After construction in the 1960s of Rishtan Collective Ceramic Factory, which applied modern mass-production technologies and factory-made glazes, the ancient techniques of ishkor majolica started to disappear.
After Uzbek independence, those of the craftsmen still left in collectivized factories started small workshops. There are over 150 such establishments in Rishton today -- some churn out batches of factory-imitation cheaply for everyday consumption by Uzbeks, and others produce more expensive, complex designs for consumption by tourists, private collections, and museums. The cheaper workshops cannot afford to use the traditional glazes, so they daub on industrial paints (produced from heavy metals) bought by the drumload. At the same time, the high-end workshops find their overseas customers demand the intricacy and novelty associated with 'designer' items and so, sadly, what is created with 'authentic' glazes represents the least traditional of designs (it is not clear that Timur needed owl-shaped spoon-rests.) One can only take consolation in arguing that some of this stuff might become tomorrow's tradition.
Meanwhile, Usmanov experiments on with transferring interlocking stars from plane paper to fluted necks. Mahmud Azizov, the kuzagar, turns the wheels. Apprentice (and nephew) Elnur Mursakayev practices a vocabulary of chorbarg (quatrefoil) and bodomgul (almond flower). The children paint tiles, sometimes discussing orders with their elders. One customer asks if a small missing bung from an antique bottle might be re-created; another wants a giant conversation-stopper adorning her new entryway. A letter from an "area-studies" faculty asks if an exhibition of Central Asian pottery might be arranged in New York, to highlight, for a change, some 'positive messages' from the region (the director of the Met has promised to take a personal interest)? Usmanov says getting the pottery out of Rishton intact is still a problem; the local carriers cannot insure expensive pieces, and there is a limit to what can be hand-carried out of Ferghana valley.
At the end of the day's long firing, it is time to open the kiln. Everyone is excited, and gathers to see how the pieces turned out; they emerge one by one, still hot to touch.