Text by Shirin Mehta
Nandini Chandavarkar, 34
Freelance Visual Designer and Ceramic Artist
Delhi, Himachal Pradesh
Why ceramics? Are you a full-time ceramicist or do you balance this with a “regular” job?
I discovered ceramics quite by chance. I had just moved to Delhi for work at the height of summer in 2016. While scrolling through Pinterest one languid afternoon, I came across a stunning bowl mended with gold, representing the Japanese art of Kintsugi. The next thing I knew, I had enrolled myself at a pottery class for beginners at the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust in Safdarjung Enclave.
I was working as a visual designer for Good Earth at the time, balancing my work week with pottery on the weekends. In 2019, I signed up for a two-month advanced programme with Atelier Lālmitti in Andretta Artists Village in Himachal Pradesh. I walked in expecting to advance my skills in studio pottery; I walked out with a new understanding of my artistic aptitude under the guidance of Élodie Alexandre and Reyaz Badaruddin.
What is your process of creation, in physical terms?
At the moment, it is a mixed bag of wheel-throwing, hand-building and using slip (clay slurry) for surface decoration. For me, it is like the chicken or egg paradox. I would not have come across terracotta or red earthenware clay without Atelier Lālmitti, though I only discovered the narrative for my ceramic practice here, and the naked, red clay lent itself to my process.
What are the shapes that you love to create? How are they in dialogue with clay/mud?
Ever since I can remember, my body has been a moving target for unsolicited comments – both negative and positive – from family, friends and strangers alike. Growing up, I was majorly underweight, and my skinny build made me very insecure. I would receive comments like, “You’re so skinny, I could break you like a twig” or “Your legs remind me of chicken legs”. These soon moved to other body parts like my “bent” nose or my “perky” breasts. These comments fuel my narrative – the personal and political – in the form of sculpture.
What resonates most with me is that the naked, red surface of the clay conveys my artistic inquiry rather poetically. The clay body is my body. The process has also made me address my standards of beauty, the body politics that surround it while unpacking my shame and insecurities.
What role do art and design in general play in your life? Were you introduced to the fine arts by your parents?
I learnt only recently that art and design are quite different from each other. Art does not solve problems, something that was hard for me to unlearn since I am a designer by profession. I am only now grasping the world of art and artefacts. I have been introduced to the fine arts by my mentors, actually. Their library is a rich source of inspiration on ceramics, art, philosophy and anthropology.
Did you always have a desire to create, even as a child?
Yes, I believe I have inherited that creative gene.
Does your work tap into childhood memories in any way?
Absolutely! My memories inform my practice. I find that brings authenticity and vulnerability to my work.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Wherever I can find it. I am currently, as I like to call myself, a “feminist in foundation”. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts, follow accounts on Instagram, watch documentaries and films, look through art and ceramics books. Of course, working on a balcony with the view of a mountain range does help.
What would you normally wear when you work?
I always dreamt of wearing white every day to the studio, but let’s get real – clay is messy. Honestly, I prefer to wear old clothes and an apron.
What is your personal style like outside of work?
I would say it’s effortless. I am most comfortable in a loose-fitting classic white and jean ensemble. I am obsessed with women-led businesses like The Summer House, Jodi, NorBlack NorWhite, Lovebirds Studio.
Does your art inform your style in any way?
I think so. I love earthy, blush tones.
Is there any form of traditional Indian ceramic creation that you gain inspiration from?
The modest terracotta clay is steeped in ancient history. I find there is nothing you cannot do with red clay. I am fascinated by the spectrum of colour and tone you might discover, all within a few feet of each other.
I have found a local clay here in the village which, after being turned into slurry and fired, resembles my skin tone. It lends a level of intimacy to my work.
Has there been a defining creative moment in your life that informs all others?
Reading The Ceramic Narrative, a book by Matthias Ostermann, in 2019.
Do you have a favourite piece that you have made?
Yes, it is the form that resembles my “bent nose”. I love how the graphic plays with the shape, accentuating the bend at various angles. I find it to be quite powerful.
Do the pieces always turn out the way you imagined or are there variables that are impossible to control?
I am fiercely focused on getting the form to look just as I intended. If I go wrong somewhere, I try again till I am satisfied.
What are you experimenting with at the moment?
Smoke firing some of my pieces inspired by works of artist Magdalene Odundo. I am also dabbling in typography and graphic posters with sound bites.
What are the emotions that feed your creativity?
Shame, anger, frustration, acceptance, joy! Not in that order.
How did the lockdown affect your creative process?
I built a barsati [room on the top floor] studio after returning to Delhi in 2019, but my professional career consumed any free time I had during the lockdown. Although I did record every idea that came to me. Even if my hands were busy designing websites, my mind and heart were convinced this was my future.