Please tell us about yourself

Aarti Vir has been balancing experimental art and functional pottery for a decade

Aarti loves getting her hands muddy and dirty, and rightfully so. She’s the only woman potter in the country who specialises in salt glaze pottery. “It’s just me and the pots here,” she says, offering you water. In a mug she has made. “That’s the advantage of pottery. I get to use what I make,” she quips.

Clad in a black tee and trousers, she throws on an apron and sits astride in front of her Japanese-style kick wheel. She places a lump of kneaded clay over the wheel, and as it gains momentum, her practiced hands shape the clay into what will eventually be a serving bowl. Reminiscing her initial days of pottery while doing her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Baroda, she says: “I thought I would never get it right. It takes a week to learn to centre the clay. The rest comes with practice.”

Her childhood passion for drawing gave her not just a master’s degree in painting but also a unique career. She made a name for herself in art of pottery. 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.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career?

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.

What did you study?

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.

Another short course at The Golden Bridge Pottery Institute at Pondicherry, gave her knowledge the edge it needed. Today, two years later, she creates the most stunning range of vases, trays, dishes, ashtrays, bowls and artefacts in a wide variety of colours, sometimes intricate, and at other times, pleasing to the eye for its detailed patterns. Surprisingly, her work is full of details which the creator says is not her forte at all.

What was your career path?

Aarti first saw pieces of salt glaze pottery at her teachers’ house in Puducherry (after her Master of Fine Arts from University of Hyderabad, Aarti learnt pottery at Ray and Deborah’s Golden Bridge Pottery). “I had never seen how salt glaze pottery is made. I read about it and experimented. Initially, there were disasters. The firing would go wrong. It’s best to struggle with it yourself so that you never forget the lessons. Three months of hard work — of shaping the clay and glazing — can go waste in those 24 hours of firing. Once you set the pots in the kiln, you have no control over them,” she explains.

Aarti apprenticed with a woman potter in the U.K. to finetune her skills in salt glaze pottery. “It was interesting to learn and incorporate things into my work. Instead of wood, I use oil as fuel. When the kiln is new, the amount of salt added varies. (Salt is added through a brick hole into the kiln, which then permeates through the kiln and lends its own texture to the pottery. Some clays attract salt while others repel). For the subsequent firings, the residual salt in the kiln adds to the results.

Aarti’s work takes place in isolation. “It’s strange. There are times I wonder if anyone cares what I am doing all alone in this place, feeling tensed or happy with my pots. When I feel the need to get away from it all, I travel.” She travelled last year to a remote village in Australia to work with a potter for five months. While there, she also took part in a conference exclusively meant for wood fire pottery. She also learnt Spanish for three years in the hope of getting to work with a potter in Spain, who could not speak English. “I never got to go to Spain but took a liking to the Spanish language.” She is now working on a collection she intends to show at an art gallery in Delhi later this year. “As a student, I hated chemistry. As a potter, I enjoy it since I can see results. Cobalt and titanium put together does give you that green colour you read about in text books,” she exclaims.

Tell us about your work

Aarti broadly categorises her work into functional tableware, decorative and experimental pottery. Her functional pottery has a loyal clientele and her decorative pieces have been showcased at various art galleries. She sticks to a pattern when working for an order and bends the rules for art galleries. “I like it when people tell me they don’t want identical-looking mugs. That gives me the scope to tweak things a bit and even come out with seemingly shapeless mugs,” she says. The decorative pieces are mostly made by hand. She draws her inspiration from Nature — “I find textures and forms from Nature intriguing.”

“I’m not into details, I like my work to look spontaneous,” she admits. Petite, soft spoken and just out of her 20s, Aarti remains devoted to her art and constantly “experiments and fails too.” Nothing pleases her more than to create something out of clay she sources from Gujarat.

Watching her knead the dough before setting it on to the wheel, we wonder if this isn’t a lot like cooking? “In fact, it is,” says she, “because potters, like good cooks, like to use everything they make. And like cooking, pottery is extremely creative.” Her fund of creativity is further enriched every year when Aarti goes back to Pondicherry for a workshop where she learns new techniques from her teachers, Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith at the Golden Bridge Pottery Institute.

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. Enter the world of Aarti Vir (3545717/ 98490-53525). It is warm, colourful, muted and beautiful. And inviting.

She is 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.