For the love of clay: An interview with Rahul Kumar

This piece appeared in The Asian Age on March 5 2012

HE straddles two worlds, often going back and forth between art and enterprise. Gurgaon-based ceramic artist Rahul Kumar, whose works are going to be part of a show (curated by Janice Blackburn) at Sotheby’s from May 8-15, draws on his in-betweenness, the duality between his professional career (he heads a business support and research team for an American firm) and artistic endeavours (read studio-pottery) to carve out vessels of immense beauty and artistic value, to create poetry in pottery.
Some of these vessels (it’s these that he mostly makes) are imbued with abstract ideas about opposing, contrasting and conflicting energies. “In some ways it’s probably similar to my life,” says the artist, who can’t have enough of clays even as he minds his business.
The aesthetics of art and the strains of commerce go hand-in-hand. “It provides the perfect balance for me. The very process and act of working with clay helps me to go beyond the cerebral and rational pursuits which happen to be my prime concerns by virtue of my professional corporate career,” says Kumar, who romances clay with characteristic finesse and fervour. “It enables me to return to my ‘core’ and reclaim parts of me which get eroded in the mundane living,” he adds.
While his profession (“a significant part of me”) leaves him with the compulsion to operate within embedded structures, clay provides him with a vocabulary to express himself in an unhindered and uninhibited manner, to communicate freely. “There is a tremendously powerful urge to break away from all boundaries. My artistic endeavours are spontaneous, intuitive, and in many ways quite basic, but liberating for me,” he says.

Dealing with the concept of duality in his works, Kumar strives to create an oeuvre in which his strokes strike a balance between harmony and discord. His previous series was titled “harmonic discord” in which he achieved that perfect blend by “impacting the surface/silhouette, small feet but large bellies, horizontal throwing marks of fingers but vertical flow of glazes”.
His works in the “tranquil flame” series, which he is planning to send to Sotheby’s, also deal with the same concept of duality: While their miniature format represents peace and tranquillity, the “bold red-glossy glaze” expresses “tension, fire, flame”.
Kumar’s works making it to the Sotheby’s show, he says, is a “reaffirmation” of his work and his expression. “It only added fuel to help me move forward in my journey. At this moment, I am very focused to put in my best. I have an important responsibility here,” feels the artist, who exudes a sense of excitement and exhilaration over studio-pottery being considered as a contemporary art form. The form has found recognition at the commercial art galleries in India and abroad already, but it is a matter of “immense satisfaction” for Kumar that the recognition is being accorded by an institution like Sotheby’s.
Form and texture, under the broad ambit of design, are crucial to ceramic artists. Pottery, which finds its roots in pre-historic times, has got a contemporary edge: It has become a medium to express abstract thoughts. While Kumar is at ease to make pots on the wheel, it is his “constant endeavour” to make them “expressive”, even if that comes at the cost of making them “non-functional”. He says: “It’s not about making beautiful objects. The aesthetics, form or deformity, textures are all used to ensure the communication of expression. It’s fun.”
Clay’s pliability, its “biggest strength”, is something that makes it a liberating and addictive affair for Kumar. “At a spiritual level, pottery is the only thing that involves all the five elements: clay, the medium, water, used to mix the clay and form the pot, air, to dry the pot, fire, to finish the pot, and space, what the pot holds,” he says.
Colour is another important “component” in creating the overall expression. “It’s difficult to say which is most critical – probably the form would be the aspect that takes most time and focus, but beyond that everything complements to achieve the intended expression,” says Kumar, who got attracted to pottery when he first saw a demonstration by a traditional potter from Rajasthan at a cottage emporium at Janpath in New Delhi. “It was magical to see a lump of clay being moulded into a beautiful object; working against all odds of centrifugal force, gravity, and soft clay,” he says.
Kumar was in Class 11 then. His parents promised to help him, but they would do so after Kumar cleared his Class 12 board exams. As a child, he says he could have never imagined being a potter. “Art was not considered to be a career option that could earn a living – and pottery as a medium made it even more difficult. Although I was encouraged to explore my creativity, focused formal education was always a top priority,” says the artist who started with a traditional potter opposite Paharganj Railway Station and soon moved to Delhi Blue Studios, a one-of-its-kind pottery school founded by Gurcharan
Singh, the father of studio pottery in India. “I had a strong desire to undergo formal art education and also to explore western contemporary art philosophies. I achieved both these when I got a Fulbright Scholarship to do my Masters from USA,” he says.
Fulbright proved to be “life-changing”  for Kumar in many ways. He went on to have several group and solo shows, won the national award from AIFACS, thrice. Sotheby’s is the latest milestone of the artist whose journey continues. “It’s important to move on quickly. The journey is much longer,” he says.
In December last year, he had a show with his sister, Manisha Sharma, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Titled “Parallel Intersection”, the show put together her paintings and his ceramic works. The show, in some sense, was the convergence of two parallel journeys: Siblings who grew up together, chose painting and ceramics as their media, and are pursuing art as a passion. Like Kumar, his sister has a “parallel” professional life, a partner with a leading international law firm. “I think the common thread in the works is that her works, like mine, tends to be very bold – use of bold strokes, vibrant colours, and done in very large format. At the same time, it’s not difficult to find subtleties and softness of the expression,” says Kumar who admires who turns to western ceramic-masters, Reitz and Voulkos, and his instructor/mentor during his Fulbright programme, Dan Hammett, for inspiration. His influences include the aesthetics of Dipalee and P.R. Daroz, his teachers.
Talking about the process of creation, Kumar says mostly it all first begins with the basic form in mind. “The aesthetics of this can source inspiration from several things. Firing style, use of glaze – glossy or matt, colours – bright or earthy, its application style, etc., is all then to make the eventual and final expression,” he says, adding that the viewer is not “concerned” about the process. “He sees the final work, and that must tell the story I intend to say,” says Kumar.
There are other times, however, when he begins with the end first: Beginning  with the final concept (that could be based on something from his environment – nature or urban landscape) or a painting (basically need not be a ceramic art form). “I then work my way backwards,” he says.
The journey is fascinating either ways.

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