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Kintsugi, the art of embracing the fissures

The Japanese art of repairing broken crockery holds particular meaning in these tough times

One can buy Kintsugi kits online, or even make home-made versions with glue and gold paint.
One can buy Kintsugi kits online, or even make home-made versions with glue and gold paint. (Photo: Getty Images)

The ancient Japanese concept of Kintsugi, repairing broken ceramics with gold and lacquer, has turned out to be a revelation on many levels, and is truly worth adopting wholeheartedly. Earlier, I would glue broken sculptures or vases, and place them in such a way that the fissures weren’t visible. If a dinner plate, mug or bowl broke, I would sadly throw it away, as I didn’t want to use broken crockery. All that has changed, for an elegant solution devised five centuries ago has become not just acceptable but rather cool. Now when friends sip my saffron aniseed and fennel tea from a once-broken cup with golden lightning running through it, they smile knowingly, or want to know the story behind it.

It was at the Prudencia restaurant in the La Candelaria neighbourhood of Bogotá, Colombia, which serves “peripatetic cuisine" from all over, that I stared at my lunch plate piled with a colourful salad. It had a squiggly crack traced in gold. A smaller plate that followed, dolloped with dulce de leche pudding and blueberries, had three pitted holes at the edges, all covered in gold. The owner, an American woman who was serving, caught my eye.

A bowl repaired through Kintsugi.
A bowl repaired through Kintsugi. (Photo: Alamy)

“Kintsugi," she said. “It’s a Japanese technique of repairing broken crockery. Looks quite beautiful, doesn’t it? It keeps our crockery going years longer."

It was certainly a great conversation starter.

I looked it up. “Kin" means gold and “tsugi" is to repair. It turns out one can buy Kintsugi kits online, or even make home-made versions with glue and gold paint. The notion has become so popular, one can buy an entire new dinnerware set by Bernadaud in white and gold that looks like it has been kintsugied.

I was reminded of the peasants and traders in the markets of Samarkand, Almaty and Bishkek, whose chipped or rotten teeth are still capped to perfection with gold. That too is a kind of Kintsugi.

The idea of repairing things and using them for longer resonates with me. Old torn saris turn to kurtas or curtains or cushions before they are turned to dusters. This was like taking a needle and thread to china.

The world over, there’s a palpable change in sensibilities towards consumption and waste. My daughter Aranya, a millennial, is averse to me bringing home any more objects. She describes it as “stuffocation", a word that combines “stuff" and “suffocation". She’s not excited by going shopping for clothes either. Instead, she might have a look at my closet and “take a shine to" something that’s been hanging there for ages.

Artists have long been working with disused objects and waste materials, and all around us, things are being repurposed and upcycled.

Looking at images of Kintsugi on my phone, I am reminded of Budapest’s ruin pubs and bars, all the more attractive for the atmospheric war-ravaged spaces they are located in.

Kintsugi, though centuries old, plays right into today’s zeitgeist.

Back home, I pulled out my delightfully mismatched, ancient dinnerware made by Gijduvan, a pottery maker in Bukhara. Many an edge of the thick, drippy glaze was chipped. Our housekeeper was embarrassed to use it. The Kintsugi kit (purchased online) was trotted out and we both had some fun mixing the powerful glue and delicate gold powder and fixing a whole bunch of well-loved pieces, propping them up to dry with kitchen-roll paper.

The dark green, purple and fuchsia glazes had befriended the gold overnight and they all looked beautiful together. The glue held strong. It was incredibly satisfying. I knew then that these pieces would remain with us forever.

The same culture that came up with the concept of wabi-sabi—which means beauty in imperfection—doesn’t just make allowances for, but appreciates, irregularly shaped pottery, ageing homes, time-gnarled woodwork and peeling paint. It has shown us a way to look at cracks differently, by emphasizing them.

Just how did this technique come about? The story goes that 15th century Japanese military commander Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s favourite tea bowl was broken and he asked to have it repaired. It came back with metal pins at the joints, which he disliked, and he asked again if anything else could be done. That’s when local craftsmen fixed it afresh, using lacquer mixed with gold powder. He loved it and a whole new art form evolved.

In these tough times of the coronavirus spread, people too are broken, unwell and traumatized. Our physical, mental and emotional well-being has been shattered. Those that heal, bolster and strengthen us—our doctors, caregivers, friends and family—are like Kintsugi gold to us.

Geetika Jain writes about cultures and experiences from around the world.

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