Handmade Stories: Puja Rao | Verve Magazine

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photography by Anupama Sebastian and Afroz Ulla. Styling by Sarah Rajkotwala. Art direction by Aishwaryashree

Puja Rao, 39 years old
Ceramic artist and designer

What initially attracted you to this form of art/craft? Are you a full-time ceramist or do you reconcile this with a “regular” job?

After completing NIFT [National Institute of Fashion Technology] Mumbai fashion design program in 2004, I worked in Hyderabad for a year then moved to Bangalore and worked with Munch Design Workshop in research, trends and forecasting, and clothing, graphics, product and packaging design. Along the way, while planning my garden, I discovered a huge gap in the market for gardening products and services. After a short entrepreneurial program at IIM Bangalore in 2010, I launched my brand Songs of Summer offering landscaping and established a garden products store in a variety of materials, ceramics being one of them . Initially, I took an introductory ceramics workshop, more to gain some understanding of the medium, but my interest grew and I was hooked. In 2012, I created my own studio.

What is your creative process? How does the creative impulse manifest itself in you?
I work with a clay body called sandstone using both hand building and lathe throwing techniques. I am constantly experimenting with techniques individually and in combination, surface textures, material mixtures, carvings and glazes and glaze applications. Currently, I work with an oxidation firing in an electric oven.

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! Parts change as you change and vice versa. It’s telling a story through form, lines, depth, textures, color, tone, intensity, layers and a myriad of combinations.

What inspires your shapes and silhouettes?
Inspiration is a state of being. You just have to let the creative force flow without interruption.

Do you sketch out your ideas before you start or do you go with the flow?
When there is a flood of ideas, I try to write them down as quickly as possible, and these sketches act as a trigger for revisiting. Very rarely concrete, they are a mixture of form, movement, texture, color, detail, feeling or thought.

The creative trigger comes in all forms; sometimes it’s a gesture, sometimes it’s the rest of a gesture and sometimes it’s just the absence of things.

Have you always wanted to create, even as a child?
As far back as I can remember, the creative urge was always there. My parents recognized it and always encouraged me. From copying the cartoons of Rajiv Gandhi and VP Singh in the Sunday papers, which I was in love with, to using pencil sharpener blades to etch chalk on the blackboard in the classroom; to have fallen in love with creative people in my youth [out of admiration] hanging out in the pottery studio at one of my schools; from bartering art supplies to exploring forests for seating; landscaping and now ceramics. It has always been about art or creation in one form or another.

What role does art and design in general play in your life?
Everything 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 countless conversations, and I also spend a lot of time in solitude. But sometimes I choose. For example, a little goblet I picked up… I love the big-bellied shape. It’s so clever and deceptive; it is tiny but holds more water than expected. I love to drink it… small pleasures!

What would you normally wear when working?
I have another set of clothes that I put on at work. Gets me in the mood. Anything that doesn’t restrict my movements and is conducive to the weather.

Is there a form of traditional Indian ceramic creation that you like? What are you inspired by?
Indian craftsmanship, temple architecture, music, dance, clothing, philosophy, yogic practices have all influenced me in various ways at different times in my life. I remember how during a road trip with a stop in Madurai, I was struck by these small bronze sculptures of Nataraja and the goddesses of the Meenakshi temple. The level of detail, the ageing, the tone, the fluidity of shapes and proportions, in combination with the silence in this space, the light at this time, the coldness of the floor, the smell and the feeling caused by the 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 comes back, I try to relive it by capturing an aspect in a room.

Was there a defining creative moment in your life that informs all others?
A period that began at the end of 2015 played a decisive role in the evolution of my approach. The next five years were transformative. My relationship with the inner and outer world has changed. My relationship with clay has changed. It became a way to express and explore my inner workings, and it allowed me to express and transform my emotions. It was a path of self-discovery that made me unearth the fossils I stood on. And this trip, it gave me words that I couldn’t find, it gave me a vocabulary that I didn’t have, it was the gift of an honest companion.

by Kabir doha [couplet] came to mind during these 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 rooms always turn out the way you imagined or are there variables that you can’t control? Is it exciting or upsetting?
Everything is becoming something; nothing is ever static, neither the viewer nor the work of art. It is true of the process of creating a work of art or of creation as a whole, it is the same thing.

As far as execution… the only disappointments were when things went wrong technically or I found out I didn’t have enough knowledge. These feelings are also fleeting since these failures only catapult learning and new ideas. The beauty is that you don’t control everything.

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