Spin The Wheel: Come Out And Clay!

This writer loves throwing clay herself, every chance she gets. Is there anything quite as therapeutic as the feel of warm, silken earth taking shape between your palms and fingers, while listening to the soothing sounds of a whirring wheel?

Which is why, meeting with studio potter extraordinaire, sculptor, teacher and artist (no matter how emphatically she may insist, that she isn’t one), Aparna Choudhrie Kala, was more passion and play, than it was any work at all.

Aparna has an undergraduate degree in Economics from St Stephen’s College in Delhi and a Masters Degree in Business from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.  She spent over thirteen years in the corporate world in leadership roles with Living Media India, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, GE/Genpact, and Infosys. But what she also has, is an immense love and talent for working with clay.

“I consider myself exceptionally fortunate,” she tells me, “I’ve managed to convert a hobby into my job – and believe me, there’s nothing more delightful, it gives joy every day. It makes me wish the day had more than 24 hours!”

Pottering About

“I think I first started learning pottery in 2001, she reminisces, “I worked with GE at the time – long hours, a very aggressive working environment and way too much travel. I decided that I needed a distraction – the gym, sporadic golf lessons, neither  did the trick, so I decided to give pottery a whirl. I started throwing under the mentorship of a wonderful and very learned lady in Delhi, who lived right down the road from my parents’ home - Monica Grewal.  She had 5 students in all – we would all sit and work in a thatched shed in her garden and it was divine!”

“Then in 2005, I moved to London with Genpact – again very fast paced, loads of travel… but I snuck in a course in Tuscany at The La Meridiana Ceramic School dabbling in porcelain and raku. And yet another one in Sculpture at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, London! When I moved back to India I studied under Manisha Bhattacharya - one of the most well known Raku specialists in the country.

If you think about it, all stolen moments really – weekend classes, a course here and there - whatever I could manage to tuck into a busy corporate life, wherever I was.

So it was a huge leap of faith to give up a great life – very high paying, fast paced, action packed, full of learning and excitement and travel and meeting smart people, all to try to wring a few bucks out of clay!”

“But I was very clear that I would not be doing this for a “few bucks”. I wanted to make sure the business model I set up, was rewarding enough both financially and from a creative standpoint, to be worth my time.  I can't say I’ve gotten to ‘financially rewarding’ yet, but I’m positive we’ll eventually get there.” Brave girl!“For instance, we’re getting into commissioned work now and it’s proving to be so much fun,” she laughs. “We’ve just completed an order for a high-end fine dinging restaurant in Delhi and are thrilled with the results. So it's definitely exciting times for TCC!”

Genesis Earth

“I established The Clay Company in 2012,” Aparna smiles. “We had no employees and no physical real estate.  So we started by offering courses at different locations whenever and wherever we found unique and affordable venues, and back then, we couldn’t afford much either! Baby steps, that led us here.”

Today The Clay Company or TCC as they’re more affectionately known, has a tiny studio in Nehru Place and a ‘pop-up’ studio at a little resort near Rishikesh called Atali Ganga.

“We’re mainly in the business of teaching – strictly adults aged 15 and above. Given that everything here is sharp, pointed and rusted, it’s hardly a child-friendly environment! Our classes attract a wide demographic of really fun adults from wildly varying fields of work, so it’s always a really exciting group of people at the studio.  At any given time the studio houses 6 guests and two teachers, never more – so the space doesn’t get cramped.  At the same time we continue to work with a panel of artists, inviting people with different levels of experience with clay into our space.”

For those looking to escape Delhi and combine their getaway with a bit of clay, just FYI, they also run recreational residency programs for groups  at their pop-up studio in Rishikesh.

The Wheel Squeals

Q: Why throwing clay? Do you also sculpt?

A: "I guess I just love clay. I’ve never really bothered with the separations between ceramics, pottery, even sculpture… I go back and forth between all of these depending on whatever my current obsession is.  But I will confess upfront that I have absolutely no illusions of being an artist.  I am a businesswoman, with a serious passion for clay.  I’m not even sure I would call myself a ceramist or potter – I don’t like such connotations, I’m not sure I completely conform to any of these, so I prefer not to label myself. "

Q: What kind of products do you make; ‘your range’ if that’s an appropriate term, and by you I mean you personally, as well as TCC?

A: "TCC  works with a panel of artists whose aesthetic we enjoy – there are potters, ceramists, sculptors, and well, me! I dabble in all of the above preferring to remain oblivious to the lines dividing these.

You can commission work from The Clay Company – it can be something simple, or a more complex order. We enjoy designing pieces and we want to produce stuff too, in small quantities. We also custom-make a line of work wear for artists, which is a lot of fun.

It’s not a ‘product’ or a ‘range’ but teaching is a huge part of what we do. I want to share the joy of clay with other adults who lead stressful career-centric lives. So we offer regular classes at our Nehru Place Studio between 10 am and 5 pm.  And our residency program as well at our pop-up studio in a beautiful little resort called Atali Ganga near Rishikesh. So all in all, I’d say, that we have a lot on our plate!"

Q: What do you love the most about what you do?

A: "The fact that I don’t really ‘fit in’ with any standard group of people – I’m not an artist, not even really a ceramist, and so I can really do whatever comes to mind. It’s very liberating! And that’s terribly important if you just want to do stuff differently!

Also, I love the flexibility and creativity in my line of work – I have a 3-year-old daughter, so I need this flexibility. This way I don’t ever have to choose between work and home.

Finally, the people I meet are delightful – our clients are such a diverse bunch of people and from all walks of life."

Q: If you weren’t into pottery, what else do you think you might end up doing/being?

A: "Gosh, I think I would have been doing what everybody else with my kind of educational background does – working crazy hours at some giant corporate or other!"

Q: What do you do to get your creative juices flowing? What do you do when you hit a creative block?

A: "It’s a terrible thing to admit, but the easiest, most accessible source of inspiration today is Pinterest! I turn to it very often.  And then there are a few Japanese artists whose work always moves me. Some of the books I have on ceramics are lovely for such days!  But in my business, creativity is not just about the clay work – it’s about making clay work interesting for my guests… to be more inventive with how we engage with them. And for inspiration for such stuff, I look to other disciplines – fashion and art are some typical go-to areas."

Q: What’s on your bookshelf / ipod/ midnight snacking shelf?

A: "On my bookshelf: River of smoke by Amitav Ghosh and I’m currently re-reading Alice in Wonderland. On my iPod: Wheels on the Bus by Little Babybum and AbidaParveen on loop! As for a midnight snack? What is that? I’m almost 45 –midnight snacks are just not something I can do!"

Q: Favourite vacation spots / what you do to unwind?

A: "I love the sea.  I don’t get to go very often but I do love it.  Kerala is a favourite vacation spot.  But I go hide in cafes and nice quite restaurants whenever I feel burnt out.  With my laptop, of course:).  I think alone time helps me unwind – wherever that may be. Oh and hand me a glass of Prosecco, and I’m a happy bunny!"

Q: What is the one thing you indulge in often or after a crazy day at work? What has been your most expensive work related indulgence?

A: "Wine! Nothing is more of an indulgence than a glass of a good red wine!  My kiln is my most expensive work related indulgence – it’s a ‘computerised’ electric kiln."

Q: A creation of yours that you are most proud of or a moment perhaps?

A: "The biggest landmark – the point of inflection in my life, was the day I decided to actually quit the corporate world. It was a hard decision because I had enjoyed it and I learnt a lot from it and I really loved the pay. Who wouldn’t? So it wasn’t an easy decision but it came quite naturally when I accepted that I was ready to move on into ‘unfamiliar’ turf."

Q: A studio potter/ceramist/sculptor or a collection/installation/project/series that you think is totally awesome and are inspired by?

A: "No one specific comes to mind other than the usual suspects like Hamada and Bernard Leach but really what fascinates me is the experimentation with clay and other mediums. Be it metal, glass, wood, etc.  That’s what I really want to be doing!"

You can reach Aparna via email on aparna@theclaycompany.in. To commission work, enroll for classes or get in touch with The Clay Company visit their website http://www.theclaycompany.in/ or Facebook Page here.