Text by Shirin Mehta. Photography by Anupama Sebastian and Afroz Ulla. Styling by Sarah Rajkotwala. Art direction by Aishwaryashree
Puja Rao, 39
Ceramic Artist and Designer
What initially drew you to this art/craft form? Are you a full-time ceramicist or do you balance it with a “regular” job?
After completing NIFT [National Institute of Fashion Technology] Mumbai’s fashion design programme in 2004, I worked in Hyderabad for a year and then shifted to Bangalore and worked with Munch Design Workshop in the areas of research and trends and forecasting, and apparel, graphic, product and packaging design. Along the way, while planning my home garden I discovered a huge gap in the market for garden products and services. Following a short entrepreneurial programme at IIM Bangalore in 2010, I launched my brand Songs of Summer offering landscape designing and set up a store for garden products in a variety of materials, ceramics being one of them. Initially, I took an introductory workshop in ceramics, more as a way of getting some understanding of the medium, but my interest grew and I was hooked. In 2012, I set up my own studio.
What is your process of creation? How does the creative impulse manifest for you?
I work with a clay body called stoneware using both hand-building and wheel-throwing techniques. I’m constantly experimenting with techniques individually and in combination, surface textures, mixing materials, carvings and glazes and glaze applications. Presently, I am working with oxidation firing in an electric kiln.
Most of my pieces are my explorations of moments – personal experiences of things, nature, events and moods that I try to capture. The beauty of working with ceramics…is time! The pieces change as you change and vice versa. It’s storytelling through form, lines, depth, textures, colour, tone, intensity, layers and myriad combinations.
What inspires your shapes and silhouettes?
Inspiration is a state of being. You just have to allow the creative force to flow through uninterruptedly.
Do you sketch your ideas before you start or go with the flow?
When there is a flood of ideas, I try to pen these down as quickly as I can, and those sketches act as a revisiting trigger. Very rarely concrete, they are a mix of form, movement, texture, colour, detail, feeling or thought.
The creative trigger comes in all forms; sometimes it’s a gesture, sometimes it’s the leftover of a gesture and sometimes it’s just the absence of things.
Did you always have a desire to create, even as a child?
As far back as I can remember, the creative urge was always there. My parents recognised it and always encouraged me. From copying the caricatures of Rajiv Gandhi and VP Singh in the Sunday newspapers, which I was enamoured with, to using pencil sharpening blades to carve on blackboard chalk in class; from falling in love with creative people in my youth [out of admiration] to hanging around in the pottery studio in one of my schools; from bartering art supplies to discovering forests to sit in; landscaping and, now, ceramics. It has always been about art or creation in some form or the other.
What role do art and design in general play in your life?
Every single thing we have experienced since birth shapes us. Art is a tool to experience and communicate creation in different forms. I surround myself with nature, books, music and myriad conversations, and I also spend a lot of time in solitude. But I do pick and choose sometimes. For instance, a small tumbler I picked up…I love the fat-bellied form. It’s so clever and deceptive; it’s tiny but holds more water than you anticipate. I love drinking from it…small joys!
What would you normally wear when you work?
I have a different set of clothing that I change into at work. Puts me in the mood. Anything that doesn’t restrict my movements and is conducive to the weather.
Is there any form of traditional Indian ceramic creation that you love? That you gain inspiration from?
Indian crafts, temple architecture, music, dance, clothing, philosophy, yogic practices have all influenced me in various ways at different times of my life. I remember how during a road trip with a pitstop at Madurai, I was gripped by these small bronze sculptures of Nataraja and the goddesses in the Meenakshi Temple. The level of detailing, the ageing, the tone, the fluidity of the forms and proportions, in combination with the silence in that space, the light at that time, the coldness of the floor, the smell, and the feeling brought about by the merging of it all, was so moving. Delicate and strong, small and powerful, light and heavy, pungent and more – all at the same time. Sometimes, when that feeling revives, I try to relive it by capturing some aspect in a piece.
Has there been a defining creative moment in your life that informs all others?
A period that began at the end of 2015 has played a pivotal role in changing my approach. The five years thereon were transformative. My relationship with the world inside and outside changed. My relationship with clay changed. It became a medium for expressing and exploring my internal workings, and it enabled me to express and transform my emotions. It was a path of self-discovery that made me unearth the fossils on which I stood. And that journey, it gave me words I couldn’t find, it gave me a vocabulary I didn’t have, it was the gift of an honest companion.
Kabir’s doha [couplet] came to mind during those days:
Maati kahe kumhaar se tu kya rondhe mohe,
Ek din eisa aiyega, mein rondhuga tohe
[The clay says to the potter why are you kneading me
The day will come when I will be kneading you]
Do the pieces always turn out the way you imagined or are there variables that are impossible to control? Is this exciting or upsetting?
Everything is in the process of becoming something; nothing is ever static, neither the viewer nor the piece of art. This is true of the process of creation of a piece of art or creation as a whole – it’s the same thing.
As far as execution…the only disappointments were when things went technically wrong or I discovered that I didn’t have enough knowledge. Those feelings are also fleeting since those failures only catapulted learning and newer ideas. The beauty lies in the fact that you don’t control it all.