Starting with Beads on the Via Vitro

Starting with Beads on the Via Vitro
by Heidi Scheffler and Stephane Ruault

Heidi Scheffler and Stephane Ruault are stained glass artists at the beginning of their careers. They are in the middle of an eight-month journey along Roman glass trade routes visiting historical sites in eight countries while meeting and working with contemporary glass artists and artisans. Their goal is to create a body of work that reflects the history of stained glass as well as to collect work from their contemporaries for a Via Vitro exhibit upon their return to France.

Our journey began with a stretch of the imagination. India as the starting point for the history of stained glass? Actually, India is perhaps the best place in the world to get a feel for what primary and secondary glass production may have been like during the beginning of glassblowing around the first century until about the twelfth century when evidence of stained glass as an established art in Europe finally abounds. Not academics or scientists ourselves, we nevertheless used their "stories" to build this journey in order to tell other stories--stories of exchange between cultures and peoples fueled by a love of this fascinating material, which when molten glows with a fiery light, and when blown transmits the same. This light unites us all without belonging to any.

One such story is that of the beadmakers of Papanaidupet, a medium-sized village in Andhra Pradesh State. They are the last inheritors of a beadmaking technique that perhaps dates back to as early as 2500 BC. At that time the beadmakers worked in Arikamedu, a large port south of Pondicherry known to the Greeks as Poduke. It was a booming, global center of trade between India and the rest of Southeast Asia as well as with the empires of Greece and Rome. Arikamedu beads as well as the technology for making them have been found far and wide. The only people who continue the tradition today ply their art at the ten workshops left in Papnaidupet.

We decided to visit the village because of a thin piece of evidence linking one of the tools they use for beadmaking with the blowpipe developed in Phoenicia. The blowpipe led to flat glass and flat glass allowed for the art of stained glass to be born. Before travelling south, we were able to visit the industrial city of Firozabad where raw glass is produced for all Indian secondary glass production centers today. We were struck by its position not unlike that of Tyre in modern day Lebanon for example, which may have produced raw glass for Mediterranean and Eropean countries as far north as England. Whereas Tyre is now an archaeological site strewn with sparkling evidence of its glasmaking past, Firozabad is a pulsing, fuming town whose glass production is still very much alive.

Thanks to raw glass chunks from Firozabad and an ancient process which demands varied tools, a perfectly designed clay furnace, and long hours of precise workmanship, the beadmakers of Papnaidupet produce the smallest beads in the world. Starting at 6pm they begin to build up the fire in the kiln using locally gathered wood and twigs. When it has reached a sufficient temperature, they melt the raw glass on a slab at the back of the furnace. When this starts to become molten, one man gathers some of the mix onto a hollow iron stick with a smooth wooden length for handling which will eventually hold fifty kilos of molten glass on its tip, rolled into a gigantic cone-shaped lollipop. Five men are needed to turn, prop, and heft the weight between the burning furnace, the raw glass slab, and the shaping stone.
After many manipulations, a thin iron tool is pushed through this long tube into the molten cone and out the other end. The cone thus pierced, and at the precise moment when the temperature is perfect, another man can peek through a smaller hole on the opposite side of the furnace, grab glass with a hooked tool from the inside of the pierced cone, and pull it out across the floor. The floor is precisely measured so that when the now tiny tube reaches the opposite end of the hut, it has cooled into a perfect, brittle, hollow length of glass. The man at this end of the hut will pull uniform lengths of tube continuously for the next eight hours, while the man at the other end will turn the molten cone in the furnace. The men are proportionate to their roles, the one hefty and strong, the other petite and delicate. They will be relieved for one or two ten minute breaks in the eight hour period, but otherwise will perform their repetitive tasks throughout the night until the fifty kilo cone has been completely pulled into thousands of glass tubes with a diameter of less that two millimeters. Finally the tubes will be finely chopped into beads, cleaned and strung for sale.
The tool used for gathering and shaping the glass cone is hollow, and there is one step in the beginning of the process in which the worker blows into the end of the tool, I imagine in order to create the space for the piercing tool to eventually move through the entire mass. Throughout this journey we have seen that ideas and creation never happen in a vacuum but thanks to meetings and exchange, it is not hard to believe that at some point someone came trading to the port of Arikamedu and saw this technique, or a bead maker went traveling and spread this technique, which set off a spark which set off another, and the blowpipe was born. Though this speculation is far from being scientifically proven, it is a story which rocks the imagination and makes of the port of Arikamedu and the village of Papanaidupet the first stop on our Via Vitro.
The Via Vitro Project was first imagined and researched by Heidi Scheffler and made possible by the Mary Elvira Stevens Travelling Fellowship, Wellesley College and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Shelter Island, New York.
Via Vitro
Heidi Scheffler and Stephane Ruault
176, rue d'Alesia
75014 Paris