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Terracotta Genius: In Conversation With Artist Anju Kumar

Crafting magic with clay and colours

Give your home a make-over with vibrant abstract paintings and exclusive terracotta artifacts

When you enter Anju Kumar’s home-cum-studio in Gurgaon, you are greeted with a large white sculpture of the Buddha – hands folded, eyes closed – ensconced in the green grass of her lawn. The sense of wonder and serenity that this evokes continues as you step into the studio. Brilliant abstracts adorn one wall, tall sculptures of the Buddha and Ganesha recline against another wall, and the floor is littered with vases, lamps and furniture in Anju’s trademark earthy tones.

We settle down for a chat with the veteran artist on, where else, but a beautifully handcrafted terracotta stool that would easily pass off as the central attraction in a grand living room.

Background and Beginnings of Studio Anmol

I am born and brought up in Delhi. Since my childhood, I have been inclined towards art and painting. I suppose it is in my genes – my father, who retired as a senior bureaucrat, is also a brilliant artist. But despite winning numerous art prizes in school and experimenting with various craft forms, I never thought of art as a profession. Instead, I focused on my academics, and after completing my schooling, I went on to pursue a post graduate degree in Political Science from Delhi University, with the intention of joining the teaching profession. In the interim, I also got married and given birth to a beautiful son.

After completing my B.Ed., I joined a school as a teacher, but I did not feel content. I’d continued to paint and make murals for my house alongside my studies, and as luck would have it, a visitor to our house was so impressed with my work that he introduced me to the manager at the Kanishka Hotel in New Delhi (now Shangri La). They were in the process of renovating the property and I was asked to decorate all sixteen floors of the hotel with my terracotta vases. Although I was not professionally qualified in pottery, I decided to take this up as a challenge. I spent hours working on my designs and found people to help me with the making of the vases – finally, I had found the fulfillment I had been searching for!

anju kumar studio anmolThe Journey

Halfway through this order, I got a call from the hotel – which was then a government owned property – that they had run out of funds and were reducing the scope to only five floors. I was an amateur and I had been so excited about getting a commercial order that I hadn’t bothered to ask for an advance. Suddenly, I was left with a massive inventory of exquisitely crafted 5 feet high colored clay vases. Now this was 1988, when pottery as an art form was unknown – and I was living in a tiny apartment in Janak Puri! I stored my vases in my parents’ government bungalow in Maharani Bagh – I remember that there were vases in every corner of the house, from the living room to the bathroom!

Finally, my parents and husband suggested that I hold an exhibition of my works. But that cost money, and I had already spent a huge amount on making the vases. Undeterred, they loaned me some capital, helped me make posters that we pasted all over Delhi and even pitched in to help decorate the exhibition area. Fortunately, the exhibition was a runaway success, and we realized that our assumption that people would refuse to shell out good money for mitti ke gamle was wrong.

Encouraged by the success of my first exhibition, I continued to hold exhibitions for the next five years. By this time, other people were also pursuing pottery as an art form, but the competition only propelled me to work harder. I was working 18 hours a day, with no social life to speak of and with invaluable support from my husband and parents who helped bring up my son. I was getting export enquiries by this time, and from 1995, I started exporting my work.

Another Turning Point

After ten years of exporting my work to virtually every corner of the globe, I made the radical decision to stop exporting altogether and instead focus on just one annual exhibition in India. Part of this was driven by a need to slow down after years of living the life of a workaholic; but a big motive was the need to rediscover the joy I used to feel every time I created something. I felt that the massive scale of my export-driven work had turned my art into a business – so while I was materially well off, my soul was craving to create something novel.

The decision to step away completely from export gave me the chance to do what I enjoyed most – experiment with different designs and medium. This was one of the most creatively satisfying phases of my journey, as I tried out new combinations of materials – clay, glass, metal, wood, etc. I also branched into creating utilitarian products – such as tables, chairs, lamps and stools – all with my signature design and artwork. I had reached the stage in my journey when I didn’t care about proving myself to others; I simply wanted to challenge myself.

In 2008, I finally got a studio of my own in Gurgaon, and I decided to put an end to my exhibitions too! My products are now retailed by The Gallery on MG, and I undertake turnkey projects for hotels and corporates.

Inspirations and design process

An artist finds inspiration in nothing and everything. The curl of a solitary leaf or the folds of a crumpled paper can provide inspiration. I am also moved by the ethos of great Indian artists such as M.F. Hussain, Anjolie Ela Menon and Paresh Maity.

There is no process to my design. I just need to feel the flow and then I can even through the night working on a design. And sometimes, I will not pick up a pen for days – for creativity does not adhere to a set schedule. I don’t take notes, but when I sit down to draw something, I find myself sub consciously drawing upon all that I would have seen and observed.

Every object that I create is designed by me by hand – I am not at all computer savvy!

A little background on the process of pottery

The first step is to sketch the design of the product – whether it’s a vase or a table or a Ganesha.

Then we mould the clay into the desired shape, using our hands and the potter’s wheel. When the sculpture is half dry, we do the artwork. This is followed by baking, coloring, glazing and applying the final waterproof finish.

Since everything is done by hand, a single piece of my pottery takes about two months to complete.

Something you are working on currently that has you excited

Last year, I launched a series of tall vase-lamps, and that’s something I continue to improvise. I am also working on a series of paintings with abstract motifs. Then I am creating lots of Ganeshas – big and small – these days. Somehow I derive immense satisfaction from working on them.

I am also experimenting with new materials, such as resin for planters, combining wood with clay, etc. An artist can never stay still creatively – life is a like a river in which you keep changing course, and that is what keeps the energy and passion alive.

studio anmol ganesha

Success Mantra

There is no mantra really – I sincerely believe that when you have a strong desire, He helps you! As an artist, you have be committed to work hard, stay focused and determined, have the guts to take risks and always, always, stay honest to your work. I have been working on my craft for 25 years and I feel I still have a lot to learn – but I have always tried to challenge myself and always been open to new ideas and projects. Stagnancy is never an option for an artist.

The support of your family certainly makes the journey easier, and I’ve been extremely fortunate in that aspect. I would not been where I am today without the unflinching backing of my parents and my husband – they made a lot of sacrifices to provide the right environment for my creative expression.

Lastly Anju, since we are in the midst of our Decor Happy issue, could you share some decor tips for the dining room?

Certainly! The dining room is the place where the family meets and eats together, so it needs to be bright and peaceful, and have tons of the happiness quotient.

For the furniture, I would clean lines with a neutral color palette – such as dull gold or earthy rust. A glass top for the dining table adds an added touch of elegance.

I always prefer neutral colours for the walls as they help to visually expand the living space. These can be combined with bright accessories to create a sense of flow. Go for cheerful abstract artwork – they are easy to maintain and provide the right dose of glamour. Opt for a large looking-glass with a beautiful decorative frame on one of the walls, so the abundance in the room is reflected back!

I love using lamps for decoration, so one corner of the dining room can be highlighted with a tall lamp.

Anju Kumar’s artwork, murals and terracotta murals are available at The Gallery on MG, or can be viewed at her studio at C-55/A South City 1, Gurgaon (prior appointment required). Prices range from Rs.300 for a small Ganesha to 1 lakh for a large terracotta piece. Artwork ranges from Rs. 6 – 8,000. 

My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Find more inspiration in our Decor Happy Issue, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB!

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