Stepping In-Aarti Vir

As you walk into Aarti Vir’s rustic, frightfully well organised studio in Hyderabad, you’ll notice a little space at the entrance. Arranged higgledy-piggledy with a charming negligence, this site is what she calls ‘the graveyard of failures’ – these are works that she attempted but never exhibited, pieces that cracked in firing, items that got left behind on the shelf. Taken together this collection will tell you, if you look closely enough, quite a bit of the journey of this extremely intriguing ceramic artist.

You’ll see deep browns and ochres marking pots from more than a decade ago. You’ll notice towers, conceptual sculpture that she ventured into earlier. There is bric-a-brac, various forms of houses and shelters she was once preoccupied with, the grey-white threshold forms she churned out in one phase… and the large constructed whorls that she appears currently obsessed with. It’s all there: for the casual observer, for the keen eyed Holmesian, for the wannabe psychoanalyst to draw conclusions from.

Vir works in this studio almost always alone. A few helpers stay in the vicinity and a couple of friendly stray dogs settle in the verandah but you can tell – this is a very solitary business. She seldom turns on music, preferring the occasional thump of hand on clay, and bird twitter. And working with clay – kneading, moulding, crossing – and yes, surrendering. It is, she admits, a spiritual process.

Indeed, if you come to look at it, hers is a spiritual journey. A journey of half steps… retreats and advances, and now, it appears, a growing certainty.One could try to read deeper into the forms she has been creating. A few years ago, her preoccupation with shelters and houses coincided most tellingly with her pregnancy. A simple seeking of security, a haven, to be within safe boundaries that keep out – and at the same time, keep in. She pondered deep and long over borders and fences. But that underwent a change, and the artist moved to a series of thresholds – ornate, beautiful thresholds… neither in nor out, poised for movement in either direction. Now, it would seem, she has committed to a course.For so many works in this showing speak eloquently of this new leaning. Intricate lines and swirls seeking their centre, and stairways that hauntingly lead, not to soaring heights, but to almost arcane doorways within.As someone influenced by Buddhist thought, as a lover of the music and poetry of the Sufis, as a spiritual seeker, Vir demonstrates that ancient axiom: the only way out is in.

As to her technique, she has always loved to experiment with glazes and slips, achieving stunning results. She bisques everything, which lets her use as many as four slips as well as a glaze on a single piece… investing her work with a certain layered sophistication. Over time, she has ventured with series of utilitarian poetry as well as conceptual sculpture. This time around, the artist has had a slight change of earth. She has been used to primarily making stoneware but she has now included porcelain in her repertoire.

There are five distinct collections in this showing. The first goes to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus for its title: ‘No man steps in the same river twice’. These are fascinating sculptures where Vir uses one element to suggest another – the medium is earth but the implication is water. Fluid wavy lines suggestive of ever flowing streams… parting, meeting, flowing, parting again… each particle ever in motion. The pieces are steel grey, with smudges of brown and wonderful patterns that the artist calls ‘gifts’ from the flyash in the woodfire kiln she fires in.

‘Seeking Centre’, by contrast, is more studied. These are portals reminiscent of a long garden pathway… is it a maze we’re in, or simply lost in the wonders of this many splendored garden? But whatever it is, we are seeking the centre of it all, the very hub. And then, reminding one of the famous stepwells of ancient India, there are the mysterious stairways that lead downward, inward…

On the same theme, but approaching it from a different tack is ‘Interconnected’– a comment on the complex connections that course through life and the universe. Connections that form, dissolve, stretch, fray, reform, reconnect. These are pieces in white and grey that enchantingly carry stains of canary yellow.

‘Fleeting’is another example where clay is made to speak for something far more insubstantial: fluff clouds. This is a varied assortment of moods and thoughts… some dark, some playful, some weighty, but all of them just coming and going. Impermanent, fleeting and perhaps, of no great value?

‘Moult’is collection of delicate, gossamer things: moulted feathers, desiccated butterfly wings. Heartbreakingly beautiful but fragile, transient. And because of the brevity of their existence, a complete tale in themselves of birth, decay and renewal.

There is an overlap of motifs that ties the whole collection together – and reminds you that this artist studied painting for six years before she turned to pottery. An ingoing stairway, for instance, has a deep scratch of feather. The portals are decorated with wisps of clouds. Here and there scratches in the ceramic hint at tributaries and strands looping back to complete a connection.

An important moment in Aarti Vir’s journey but equally for us, we who stand and stare at her work. The quest is on, and the answers are within.

Sheetal Vyas

July 2016

Sheetal Vyas is a writer and journalist. She has known Aarti Vir and followed her work since they were both students at the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication at the University of Hyderabad.