Ceramics Artist, Photographer & Poet
New Delhi, India
Inspiration is often hard to find but you always have it. What inspires you?
When people know what they want to do, it makes life more beautiful and so much more exciting. I find inspiration in things that I see, like a flower or a person I meet who says something in conversation. I am inspired by things that are very mundane or very simple. It’s not that I go looking for inspiration. Inspiration comes to me.
You quote Rumi often. What do his words mean to you?
Have you ever felt it? You just open a book, read two lines and that’s what your answer is? Whenever I open Rumi and read anything, anywhere, two lines, I interpret it in any way that I want to and mostly the answers I am searching for come to me. When I was in a flux and I didn’t know what was meaningful anymore, I read this line - “Be relentless, you are the one you seek.” That stays with me all the time.
Whenever you are in self-doubt, you have to keep working, you have to be relentless. That is where you’ll get the answer.
What is it about pottery that you love?
Everything. When I got married, I had a tough two years. I was still in architecture school. I was working but I was just not feeling it. Two years later, I had my son. I was feeling like I was letting go of my own life. I was not prepared for all that was happening. I had to do something which would shut down the rest of the world. I had to spend time concentrating. So I started learning pottery from Mrs. Juhee Bose in Chitaranjan Park. For those three hours, I would not even think about my home, my husband, my child, my work or anything. It was just complete, where I could just be one with what I was doing.
How is pottery so meditative?
Your mind cannot wander. The minute it does, something goes wrong. You have to do everything with integrity. You cannot be doing other things, you cannot hurry up. You have to give the material that respect. You have to respect the time it takes.
Pottery sounds unforgiving!
It is unforgiving but that is life! There is a process that you have to follow. You have to wedge your clay. You have to make sure there’s no air inside it. You have to throw the piece properly. You have to lift the walls properly. It cannot be done in a “whatever goes” attitude.
What is difficult for you?
It is hard is to get the results that I want. It can also be heartbreaking because you make something with your heart and soul in it and then it comes out of the kiln and it is cracked or the colors are not correct. But it is my experience that when the results do not come as expected, there was a moment in the process when I was not true. Maybe it was while wedging. Or while throwing. Or maybe when I did not allow it time to dry or when I did not mix the glaze enough. Somewhere, I was not true.
There was a time when I was doing this huge mural. It was some twenty feet by twelve feet. I put the first batch of tiles into my kiln and when I opened it - all the shelves had broken and everything had fallen. I was absolutely devastated. The entire furniture inside got stuck together and I had to literally pull everything out. That is hard. When things cannot be what you want them to be.
Did you ever doubt your decision to leave architecture?
Yes! For a good four or five years, I was not able to justify it. I did work on two or three architecture projects and the experience was an eye-opener for me. People were not working on a time schedule, or delivering the best quality. And then the client argued so much about money. All these practical issues were very tough for me.
If you’re doing anything, you have to put in your best. If you can’t do that then better you don’t do that kind of work. You have to honor what you have promised to do at whatever personal cost that comes with it.
So what catalyzed your complete change to pottery?
One day, my pottery teacher at Sanskriti said, “Think of something new to make, do something more.” If you are stuck in one place and you are not going anywhere, that’s when things don’t make sense. You have to grow. If you don’t grow then that’s the end of the situation. When you start evolving, you start justifying what you’ve done.
How does pottery complement your personality?
Firstly, integrity. I must honor my commitments. In pottery, I do not have to depend on any other person or circumstance that makes me unable to do that. Secondly, it is very artistic. Each piece - the color, the shape, the texture, the size, the count - everything has to mean something to me. The last thing is that I can take off whenever I want, shut down my studio - take a vacation, be with my children. I want to be free in whatever I do. In art, you are the artist, you can decide what you want to do. You’re not bound by somebody else.
Does your work connect with your family life at all?
Our family is connected, it’s not that everybody lives in a bubble. When I open my kiln, it’s an event. Everyone gets excited. I call my husband, my children, “The kiln is opening. Come see what I’ve done!” It gives the kids a way to look a little deeper into what they themselves are doing. My husband used to sit outside the gallery doing his work and now he comes with me, walks, thinks, talks at my shows. My son has got into photography in a big way. It started with a simple thing of him photographing my pieces and editing them on Photoshop. My daughter comes and works in the studio making pieces too.
What does success mean to you?
At the end of the day, if you’re feeling happy about a day well spent where you have worked and yet you are still raring to go - I think that is success.
I am lucky that I don’t have to think about money. That is a big factor in how I think about success. I have met potters who have told me, “Vishakha I cannot live by pottery, I cannot raise a family by pottery.” I haven’t made any money in pottery. Whatever I do make goes back in the studio, I invest in my kiln, I invest in my show, or even buy a painting.
Why do you work at all?
There are so many things going on in my brain that I want to make. I keep trying to tell everyone that I am very selfish - I do what I do for me. I feel very happy when someone appreciates my work and buys it. That is a very big thing because I leave a piece of me in everything I do.
How do you handle criticism?
When I started doing artwork, this guy at my show kept saying, “Who has made all these monkeys?” He came to another show of mine and said, “Oh, so you’re the girl who makes monkeys.” I turned around and walked out. I couldn’t deal with it. Criticism from those who make two comments and walk out really troubles me. I get affected.
But also, this dear friend who is an artist herself is very, very critical of my work. She thinks about what I have done and discusses how it can be better. What is interesting is that this criticism makes me think more. Then I feel, “Oh my god, so much more is there for me to do.” There’s no end to it, there’s no stopping me. I can go on and on.
If you agree to be criticized, you will be able to move ahead. More thoughts, more avenues will open up to you.
Sounds exciting. Who else keeps you so inspired?
There’s another friend who works like 23 hours out of 24 hours and he’s always asking, “What did you do today? Did you work?” To hear people who are working so hard inspires me. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten inspired by some big shot artist or architect. The people who surround me and who are there with me - their lives, their stories, what they do is more inspirational to me.
You’re also quite the poet. How does poetry play a role in your life?
The writing happens when I’m zoned out, half asleep. I sometimes wake up at 2am and it’s like this person is telling me, “Write it down, write it down.” In the morning, I don’t know whether I’ve written those lines or somebody else has. I don’t know where it’s coming from. It is damn spooky!
Do you see yourself doing this work forever?
What I am doing is not enough. Life is flying past. I struggle every day with this. One of the reasons why I go to work and work longer hours and come into the home looking a mess - with clay on my hands and in my hair, or when I have a splitting headache and I don’t take medicine - I want my children to realize that you have to work. If everyone would put in their 24 hours, life would be so different. Every day it’s like, “One more day gone by and I have not done enough!”
I don’t think I’ll ever not be restless. I cannot be satisfied. That is the best part of life. That is what is good. It’s not something to be unhappy about - it is exciting."
So it’s good to be restless?
Why should you want to just be settled and restful? There has to be more to life than that. I think that’s great. If everybody was restful and satisfied, the world would still be in the Stone Age. And I don’t want to be there!
The excitement of seeing a form emerge out of the formless is what has driven Vishakha Swarup since her days at School of Architecture, CEPT, Ahmedabad. After completing her graduation as an architect, she branched out into ceramics and is currently working out of her studio in Delhi. Vishakha started her journey under the guidance of noted ceramic artist, late Mrs. Juhee Bose and continued her journey under ceramist, Mr. Arun Mukhuty at Anagram Sanskriti.
ABOUT MY WORK
In every piece of my work, I aspire to evolve a thought that touches me as I live through the day…. maybe a book, a building, a character, a sunrise, the sea, the mountains, a color or even a form. I find my work emerging into a series as I continue to explore the essence that had given birth to that thought. I find myself partial to the raw look of wood-fired ceramics with the hint of a glaze as it experiments with the dichotomy of opposites, the light and the shade, the gloss and the matte, the rough and the smooth. And within this conflict of opposites, I find expressed emotions that exist in each person.
"Step gently on a wisp of a cloud and float to the Earth on a wing and a prayer
Or run through the air from white to white and make friends with the wind rushing by
Far above the ribbons of grey and mirrors in patches of sun and sky
No touching down on roofs of red or ghosts of unchanging lives
Just be forever in the cascading clouds to sing to dance to laugh to be"