Ceramic artist Rahul Kumar believes in using his unique visual language to reinvent things from nature
How were you drawn to pottery?
At the age of 16, I saw a traditional potter demonstrating at the Central Cottage Emporium in Delhi. I was so fascinated with his skill – it was magical to see how a lump of clay became a hollow form. That left a mark in my memory and it was the start of a love affair. Although, like is usually the case for all ceramists in India, I was trained as a studio-potter, I now rarely make functional pots. My works are now sculptural forms, pieces of art that have a story to tell.
What took you from management studies to ceramic art?
I come from a family of professionals with a middle-class value system. Education has always been most important. While my sister and I were always encouraged to explore various vocations from sports to arts, a formal mainstream education and career remained at the core. Being an artist was not considered a career option that could give a respectable livelihood. So, I pursued an MBA and took up a corporate job/career and practiced my art on the side for 18 long years. During that time I prioritized my art over other things that I could engage in (in time beyond my work life) but that was the choice I made. In hindsight, I am glad I had a dependable and well-paying career. I never had to depend on my art to sell to pay the bills and that was most liberating. I always chose to make what I felt like. It helped me tremendously to remain true to my expression. I completed my Master’s in Art from the University of Dallas (USA) on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2008 and received the Charles Wallace award to study in the UK in 2013.Three years back I finally decided to become a full-time art professional.
When did you decide to set up Rahul Clay Studio?
Fairly early on, my teacher made me get a wheel at home. He felt confident that I could be independent and that it would help me develop my own language, but I used a community kiln to fire my works. In the year 2000 I was to be part of a group show in Mumbai. The person in-charge of the community studio where I fired was giving me a hard time and so I gave up working there. I partnered with a fellow ceramist and got a personal kiln made. That was the beginning of working in my own space. Today I have a well-equipped studio with three kilns, pug-mill, and various other things to allow me to work with ease.
What inspires you?
Being a visual artist, I source inspiration from literally everything around us…strokes of a painting, the flow of a dance movement, a quirky modern building façade or flora and fauna. Forms, textures, layers, colors – all of that is employed in my medium of ceramics. And that is what makes it most satisfying. Taking things to clay creates a whole new dimension and there is just a dotted line left to the source of the inspiration itself.
What techniques do you use? How do you take objects beyond their utility and function?
In past I have most often worked with wheel thrown forms and glazed them in high-temperature firings. I was always interested in altering the form. What the wheel gives is very symmetric and I was interested in the organic. So, wheel thrown works became my starting point. Of late, I have been working off-the-wheel, using slabs. My current palette itself is non-glossy and monochromatic. I do not take the function out ‘to make art’. Function is never a consideration from start to end. The only objective is the individual’s expression and esthetics. Everything I do is to eventually achieve this goal from my art.
Which has been your most memorable work so far?
Developing a body of work is always the most enjoyable part. Once I know what needs to be done, and have explored, experimented, and made the decision of what works, then it’s just mechanical production. And that is relatively boring. The most recent work I completed culminated in a show titled ‘Breathing Spaces’. It was an interesting process because I collaborated with another artist. A large-scale installation from this, titled ‘TerraGeometrix’, was also part of the First Indian Ceramic Triennial that was launched in 2018. In 2015 I completed ‘Circle Uncircled’, an installation comprising 101 platters across a wall space of 30×10 ft. It was challenging since I pushed the boundaries of my skill set at the time. Fully funded by the India Foundation for the Arts, it was displayed as a special project at India Art Fair. The work is now part of the collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
How do you balance creativity with the commercial side of it?
I have been lucky to keep the two separate. I never had to depend on my art to sell to pay the bills. One has to remain honest in the practice and in long-run that is visible and collectors will appreciate that. I have a small following now after 24 years of working in the medium. There are times when unsold works pile up and I often use them to barter with other artists. As a result, I have a reasonably good art collection!
Do you enjoy teaching? How did you get into it?
I love to teach since it is a good way to learn! I began teaching at Sanskriti Kendra, an international artist residency in Delhi. When I moved home and set up my own studio, I wanted to discontinue and focus on my own work. At that time one of my students asked if she could continue to learn with me in my personal studio because she felt I could teach well! That led to classes in my studio, which continue till date. I take students who are seriously keen to work in clay, not those who want to dabble. They need to have figured that clay is their calling before coming to me to learn.
What role does recognition play in an artist’s success?
It would be a lie if I said awards do not matter. However, the biggest reward for me as a creator is the process of making and evoking the intended emotion from my audience. Awards do help the CV make more credible. For instance, many doors open when I say that I am a Fulbright Scholar. Those who know about it would know it is a respected award, and if someone received it, they must be competent in their area of work. But the role ends right here. It will probably help open a door or get that initial attention but beyond that only the quality of work and conviction as an artist will take things forward.
What challenges have you faced in your journey?
My practice is very process driven. And in India, especially till about seven years back, there was a paucity of standardized material and equipment. Since clay artists are heavily dependent on the technique, it was a challenge at every step. However, this helped me become resourceful and innovate alternatives to solve a problem. Can you imagine that we used steel tongue-cleaners to make tools? These are now readily available on the internet or at a large stationery shop.
How does showing your work in the West compare with the Indian experience?
I believe showing work is a critical completion of any work of art. The raison d’être of art is to say something and it therefore must reach an audience. If the work is able to evoke the emotion that was intended by the creator, then it is a successful work of art. I have had eight solo shows in the US and India. In general, people in the West are more engaged with the arts. To visit an art gallery or museum is a ‘thing to do’. In India while things seem to be changing rapidly, we have a long way to go. Minimal infrastructural support from the government does not help. People are not able to distinguish between art, craft, and design. They all converge and diverge, but these are separate disciplines with distinct ethos.
What was it like to be a part of the First Indian Ceramic Triennial in 2018?
It was a matter of honor for me to have been part of such a landmark event. It was so professionally organized that it was hard to believe that it was the first edition. I personally think it has helped position the medium of clay in a contemporary light. As Indians we associate clay with the humble pot that is available for a few hundred rupees on the roadside. People find it difficult to view an object made of the same medium in an art gallery. Triennale presented in a concentrated manner the possibilities with clay and that has been very energizing.
Where do you see ceramic art headed in India?
Things are changing rapidly. Several contemporary galleries are representing ceramic artists. Private collectors are interested in engaging with this art form and significant museums have acquired works. I feel this is just the beginning of a long journey. A large proportion of people working in clay still make functional work and I feel there is lack of clarity of what is art at a fundamental level. Education in art overall will be critical to bring about that change. A handmade object enriches daily life and there is tremendous respect for functional work. However, a work of art is different, it has different objectives.
How did you get interested in art journalism?
After I gave up the mainstream corporate role, I felt that I had a very rare and unique skill set sourced from two very distinct fields of work – corporate/management and arts. There was a deep desire to utilize this. I realized there was a gap in those who write on art – either there are academic writers, who do not cater to people who do not follow art, or there are reporters in national dailies with no knowledge or interest in the arts. So, I decided to try my hand at writing. It has been two years and I have around 70 published articles under my by-line in art magazines and newspapers like MINT Lounge.
As an artist, after concluding a successful show, this is the time for deep thinking and exploring. I am working on a few bodies of work. The only objective as of now is to conceive ideas and implement, and then self-critique. Hopefully the process will lead to something. I continue to write on art for various publications. I am also part of an upcoming curated group-show in Delhi.
This article was originally published in POOL 106.
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