In 2009, when I quit my job at a popular music channel to give my undivided attention to pottery, my boss thought I’d lost it,” laughs Rohit Kulkarni. But his boss wasn’t the only sceptic. After all, Kulkarni was setting off to a tiny village in the north of Himachal Pradesh to spend three and a half months learning the nuances of working with clay. “It was a completely immersing experience. I was living and breathing pottery. The only breaks I took were for eating and sleeping. That was the routine every day,” he says, recalling his stint with 74-year-old Mansimran Singh in Andretta, who he refers to as the Grand Old Man of Indian Pottery.
Chasing a dream
Kulkarni may have gone back to the grind of the media industry on his return to Mumbai, but three years down the line, he is finally able to see his dream materialise. In July, he set up studio Curators of Clay with his business partner Bhairavi Naik. The part-time potters, both of whom continue to juggle full-time jobs, spend every free minute in their Goregaon studio. “Every evening, as soon as we’re done at the office, we head to the studio. Pottery has become our life,” says Naik, who first began learning the art about nine years ago. Working in the world of advertising, the biochemistry graduate says she was always drawn to art. “My fascination for pottery grew after I joined a 10-day hobby class,” reveals Naik, who almost echoes Kulkarni’s story. “In college, I had wanted to become a sculptor, but circumstances led me to the commerce stream. Working with clay was something that just happened to me. Vinod Dubey’s hobby classes taught me the basics of using the wheel, and then there was no turning back,” adds Kulkarni.
The community of Mumbai’s potters is a small one and it was inevitable that the duo’s paths cross. “We met at Sandeep Manchekar’s studio, where we worked for years before deciding to set up shop ourselves. He has a tremendous amounts of experience in the field and has taught both of us the finer nuances of studio pottery. Even now, whenever we need technical advice, we turn to Manchekar. Besides, we still use his kiln,” smiles Kulkarni. The partners share a common philosophy about creating handmade bespoke ceramics. “We’re both strongly influenced by the Japanese Mingei pottery movement, which is about finding art and beauty in everyday objects. At Curators of Clay you’re not likely to find showpieces. We make utilitarian pieces that are exquisite,” says Kulkarni, offering the example of their ceramic dinner set and their beautifully glazed twisty mugs. “Thanks to my marketing background, I made sure we have a ‘vision statement’,’” he laughs. “We want our products to be cherished and bought. The joy of having great pottery is about using them as your favourite cereal bowl, mug or tea pot. They’re not to be kept in a showcase,” he says.
While their shared passion helps bind the duo as a team, their differences play just as big a role. “Luckily we have the same aesthetic sense and neither of us would dream of adding say kalamkari work on pottery, but even the guys who work with us will tell you how different our styles of working are. I’m more spontaneous, while she’s more organised and scientific about it all. She will write down every move so that she can replicate it if it turns out well. My point is, why replicate it?” chuckles Kulkarni.
The entire two-three week process behind making the final ceramic product involves work on the wheel, letting the clay dry, firing and then glazing. Naik’s science background helps with glazing their clay products. “Glazing is fun but I know that Rohit doesn’t feel that way. I enjoy the challenge of creating a glaze formation,” says Naik, well aware of Kulkarni’s aversion to chemistry and its formulae. “I know the basics. I understand that copper would give a green glaze,” protests Kulkarni.
But setting up a brand means more than just working with clay and the duo have their roles clearly marked. Kulkarni handles all the communication for the brand, while Naik manages the finances. Clearly they’re working well as a team, for within two months the duo has managed to bag several interesting projects. “An eco-homestay in Kanha recently asked us to make all their crockery for them. It was wonderful because they gave us a freehand and we made everything from vessels, to serving bowls and mugs. Another interesting project we’ve been commissioned is for an installation for huge tea cups about two feet large,” reveals Naik. “Gaurav Jaswal, an enthusiastic collector based in Goa, has commissioned this work. He wants four of these stacked one on top of the other — sort of like tumbling tea cups,” adds Kulkarni. “Jaswal has been a mentor. I think he is amused at my enthusiasm towards making crockery and is trying to nudge me towards art,” he laughs.
Apart from taking orders for custom-made ceramics on Facebook, the duo has also started stocking their products at Versova-based lifestyle store Tribe. The dream for the duo, however, is to set up a store of their own. “When that happens, we will begin curating designs from potters who don’t get the chance to showcase their work in Mumbai. Take the potters of Andretta, for instance. The furthest they’ve gone is New Delhi,” rues Kulkarni.