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THERE SHE sits at a wooden wheel, kicking it gently to go round, while her hands shape wet black clay into pretty shapes. This is but the first phase of what will eventually be a mug, or a dish, perhaps even a casserole and will adorn the shelves of her modest workshop at Madhapur. Meet Aarti Vir, a potter of some repute, whose glazed functional pottery and stoneware fill the shelves of Contemporary Arts and Crafts, near Somajiguda circle, and `also’ boutique in Begumpet.

Sculptor Aarti Vir from Hyderabad shares her affection for the material clay and her experimental works with glazes, slips and porcelain resulting in head turning ceramic sculpture


How did you become a sculptor? How did you end up in an unconventional, offbeat and unusual career such as this?

Her passion for pottery stems from her childhood love for drawing. All she ever enjoyed doing then was to draw and, as if to fuel her passion, school days soon took on a different meaning for her: it was Ms. Azra’s weekend painting classes during the school term and weekday sessions during the vacations that gave her a sense of direction.

Though a career decision was difficult for her to make, all she knew was that “it had to be something connected with art.” Maths, being a bugbear, stopped her from taking up architecture though creating forms and shapes fascinated her. With a bachelor’s degree in painting from M.S. University, Vadodara, where she did a subsidiary course in pottery, followed by a master’s degree in painting from the University of Hyderabad, which wasn’t memorable at all.

Tell us about your journey in the field of sculptures?

I studied painting for six years. I did my Bachelors of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayaji Rao University and masters at S N School, Hyderabad Central University. During my bachelors, my month in the sculpture department stands out vividly in my memory even today. We worked with clay during the entire month and that experience stayed with me. My shift from painting to ceramics was not a planned one. I had heard about a course in ceramics at the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry and decided to try it out. I enjoyed the material and the process so much that I have not stopped working with it twenty years on.

What inspired you to do ceramics?

I work with clay because apart from the fact that I love the material – the malleability, the expressiveness, the completely ‘down to earth’ ness of it, the entire process of making and firing engages me on multiple levels. I love the fragility of the raw work. And the transformation after it has been through fire. Every stage in the process is fraught with uncertainty and an ultimate relinquishing of control – much like life. 

Please elaborate on your style of work.

I make my own clay body, slips and glazes. This involves a fair bit of testing and tweaking. And although I have a few staples and favourites amongst the slips and glazes, I enjoy experimenting with the material, tailoring it to suit whatever I am making. My usual clay body is brown stoneware. I have also used porcelain to make some of the work in a recent collection. The work goes through several stages in the making, drying and firing processes and every stage has its own rhythm.

Beginning with a sketch or a maquette, I hand build the work. A meditative, often slow process, the work evolves gradually through a series. Often the same concept explored in varied forms. Sometimes new ideas and directions emerge during the making.

I fire in a wood kiln, first to 900 centigrade. After which the work is slipped and glazed. Often the work already has a layer of slip and maybe some drawing on it before the first firing. I enjoy layering slips, sometimes painting, waxing over it, to create a resist, then spraying the glaze. The glaze firing to 1280-1300 centigrade, takes between 22-26 hours in the wood kiln. I also salt glaze. At 1280 C I introduce salt (sodium chloride) into the kiln. The sodium settles on the work, accentuating texture and colour.

 What are the materials you like to experiment with clay?

All the experimenting that I do is with the clay bodies, slips and glazes. Clays vary a lot in terms of the colour they fire to and workability. I like the fact that I can experiment with that depending on what I’m making. I sometimes add grog, iron pyrites, feldspar chips to the clay. This adds an entirely different dimension to the surface and what it expresses. I also enjoy layering different slips and glazes. I think that is a legacy of my days as a painter.

I think I do deliberately keep a lot of my forms very simple so that I can play around with the surface. But whether I paint on the clay or not, depends not so much on form, as on what I’m trying to say. Sometimes, the form is quite enough on its own- even if it is a very simple form. Other times, I’m trying to express multiple, layered thoughts, and then I draw or paint on the clay.

What is the constant source of inspiration behind your work?

It is my journey through life. As my life unfolds, organically, responding to circumstances and changing with them, so does my work. Sometimes the work addresses an interior life, sometimes an external concern.

Which is your most memorable work?

What is memorable is the process, the challenges and excitement of exploring a new idea or direction.

Who are the art legends you admire?

Andy Goldsworthy – His work moves me by utter simplicity and stunning visual impact. His use of natural material to make work that is either transient or subject to transformation through exposure to the elements overtime resonates on a level that no words ever could.

Anish Kapoor – The playfulness and the sheer scale of his work is breathtaking. His work is an almost impossible convergence of complex thought and simple form.

Nasreen Mohamedi – Her work is to me the epitome of the subtle, the understated and the powerful all at once. There is an almost physical impact from her very incorporeal drawings.

Appreciation for this art?

Already rich with the techniques she has learnt, she has covered her workshop rooms with beautiful artefacts – often a blend of colour with technique, style with shape – created specially for three forthcoming exhibitions, soon to be held at Mumbai, Chennai and in the city too. That apart, there is also the excitement of baking clay shapes in her large kiln, which is usually a five-day process. This means constant day and night supervision at the workshop for Aarti as the kiln does its job slowly but thoroughly.

Aarti, however, is undaunted by this as much as her parents and family are understanding and supportive of her ambitions and lifestyle. But when she is home with family, her time is usually spent reading, swimming or painting collages and watercolours.

And no, though she does come from a family of trained Hindustani musicians and singers, she does not share their passion. Her passion is different and so is her whole world. . It is warm, colourful, muted and beautiful. And inviting.