In the studio with Kritika Soni

The journey of potter and ceramicist Kritika Soni is an interesting one. It’s one that’s looped through science and graphic design, a detour into textiles, before she finally found home and her calling in the potter’s studio with clay. Since returning from London’s Chelsea College of Art she launched her label—Kara Sabi— and website late last year. Simple and honest, Soni applies her experience as a textile designer to her ceramics. The result is a refreshing and beautiful play of impressions on imperfectly handcrafted wares that celebrate creases, cracks, and all manner of asymmetry. She now creates her carefree designs from a communal studio in a small village in Delhi.

Was creativity a big part of your childhood?
I was always into arts. My mother is a fine artist. My maternal grandmother used to paint. I think that influenced my love for drawing and painting when I was young. Even though I didn’t have a very good hand at drawing, I just really enjoyed the process. I loved having colors around me and just having lots of paper and coloring books. I think that might have been me instilling my love for art.
There was never one ‘aha’ moment where I woke up one fine morning and decided I want to become a potter. Different experiences in different points in my life have led me to this point where I have arrived today. In high school, I took up science. I was pretty clueless in class 10 and my older brother did science so I thought I’ll do it too. Towards the end of high school I knew I didn't want to pursue a career that had anything to do with science. I was glad though, because I knew then what I didn’t want to do, which only brought me closer to what I did want to do. Through my school years all my extra curricular activities were always creative. But it never occurred to me that I should make a career out of it. I didn’t have much clarity. After realising that I didn’t want to pursue science, I thought to study graphic design in college. I was really into it at the time. And so I went to Shrishti and that’s how I landed in Bangalore. By the end of my second year in university I came to realise that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer but a textile designer instead and so that’s what I chose as my specialisation. After that I came back to Delhi to work. So really with me the secret to finding what I wanted to pursue was to eliminate everything I didn’t want.Where did you work after university?
My first job was in this company called Pitara. I had a senior in college who’s mum ran the place, she came for the college exhibition and liked my work. At Pitara I was designing and styling for the women’s range. We were suppliers to Fab India and Lifestyle. After that I joined Satya Paul.
Textile design is a vast subject. At Pitara my role was to develop designs and design motifs for embroidery. At Satya Paul I was mainly involved in digital prints. After Pitara and much before Satya Paul I had applied for my masters and I had gotten through. I wasn't sure if it was what I wanted. I think I applied for my masters more as a moral boost—like am I good enough for their college? I didn't really want to do masters I just wanted to know how good I was. Or bad.

Tell us about college.
This was Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. So I tired for a moral boost, I got though and then I was like okay, I know I'm good enough. But I didn’t accept the offer immediately. I put it on the back burner for a bit. In the meantime I started work at Satya Paul. But the setup there was a little too corporate for me. I didn't like that. Also our aesthetic was really different. I wasn’t creatively satisfied. And in the middle of me deciding whether I should stay at Satya Paul or not I got a letter from my college saying that I have been given a 100 per cent scholarship. That was it. I knew I had to go. And so I left to do my masters in textiles.
Mine was a one year course and before joining we were supposed to have had a little bit of an idea on what our masters project was going to be. So I knew what I would be working on and that involved me working with ceramics. That’s how I got introduced to the medium. I went to the ceramic lab and the instructor there was so helpful. He helped me get started with super basic tips and in exploring the medium for my final year project, I discovered that I loved it.
For my final year project I was working around the concept of slow design along with this Japanese concept called Wabi Sabi, which is about appreciating flaws and finding beauty in them. I wanted to explore these concepts and draw parallels between them and these hyper lives that we’re living right now.

Did you jump into pottery right after?
I didn’t actually. After I completed my masters I came back and took up a job in textiles again. But even though I enjoyed myself, I wasn't a 100 per cent creatively satisfied. Every few weeks I always felt like something was missing. But alongside my job I started taking weekend pottery classes in wheel pottery. I loved that so much, I realized what was missing from my life—clay. And so I quit my job to become a potter.
The love was instant. it was weird. I have never felt that confident in the medium I was trained in—textiles. I have two degrees in textiles but it never made me feel that confident. Also with textiles I never felt like I had my own style. I always wondered what it felt like to have that as a designer. When I see the designers I look up to they all have their unique signature which is instantly recognisable. And with textiles it never felt like me. But with ceramics when my hands touched the clay it just felt so instinctive and my hands just moved so naturally. And I honestly don't know from where but I got complete clarity on my aesthetic, and my look. It just fell in place for me. Everything was happening on its own. And people were also reacting to my work so positively so that just made me more and more confident.
How did you end up in this beautiful communal studio space?
I found out about this studio last year. When I got back from London I had no idea how it would work in Delhi. I had already spent a couple of years doing textiles so I knew which markets to go to, where source fabrics from and the rest. But with pottery, I had no idea from where I’d source my clay, my mediums, my tools. I spent hours on the internet doing research hoping something would come up. And I remember one of my father’s friends told me once about this community studio in Garhi. I didn't even know there was something like a community for artists here. Overseas such a thing is so common but here I had no idea. So I came to this village studio in Garhi. I feel like I was almost destined to do this. Because once I decided that this was it everything started falling into place for me one after the other. So I think i just got to where i am though a long process of elimination and not knowing what I want but knowing what I don't want mostly.

What is Kara Sabi?
I think I basically decided to continue on with the concept of Wabi Sabi I had worked on in my masters degree because I could strongly relate to that. Kara also is a Japanese word. It means From. So it’s basically from Sabi as in coming from the concept of Wabi Sabi.

What draws you to the idea of finding beauty in imperfection?
We have a lot of purchasing power today. And with this comes the ability to easily discard things. We buy things and even if that thing has one little tear or crack we’re happy to replace it another thing without much thought. We do not have an emotional connect with our belongings anymore. And we can relate this to what’s happening in the world around us. It is like this with mostly everything. Most of our things are mass produced. if I go to a high street store today I know that a hundred other people will own what I do, it’s coming from a machine, digitally printed, trend-based and short lived. A lot of my research for my final year project was centered around this. I came across articles that spoke about this desire to have an emotional connect with what we own so we value what we own. And so breaks and tears and chips are things to be fixed and preserved and not discarded. And also in this age of mass production we’re losing stories. What’s the story of that product, who spent time making it? This kind of thinking made real sense to me. It really resonates with who I am as a human being so it’s come to be an integral part of Kara Sabi as well.How did you begin to develop your style?
I think this is where I have to thank my background in textiles. Because if you see I use a lot of fabric and textures so I think my love and my understanding of layering comes from having studied textiles. You know nothing in my life has gone to waste like me taking science did not go waste because it gave me the clarity that I wanted to pursue something creative. Me taking textile did not go to waste because that is being used in my ceramics. You know another thing is that I'm self taught with ceramics. There are pros and cons to that. Because I have not studied it I have not been conditioned to make things a certain way. I don’t know the ‘right way’ to do something I just know my own way and that, I discovered works for me. It could be very wrong theoretically from a school perspective, but I think because I am figuring my own way in ceramics and my textiles that combination has given me a very fresh perspective on how I can combine the two and develop something of my own.

Yes I think that most of the time self taught people, because they chance upon things on their own, they have so much freedom, which is daunting but maybe it;s a great thing.
Its is a blessing for sure. But I think what really helps me is that I work out of a community studio and if ever I need to know something or need help with something I have all these amazing people around me to help me. And they're all so helpful. So it’s a blessing for me to be working in a community studio. Me on my own I would have had so many questions to answer on my own and I might have been more intimidated by that experience. This is a very nurturing space.

What does a day in your life look like?
My mornings begin in the studio. There’s days when I know what I want to do and I do that. Then there’s days when I don't know what I feel like making so I just take some clay chunks and make small prototypes and figure out what to do. It really depends. If I know what I have to make, its easy. I think the days when I don't know what to make are usually days when I'm trying to include something new into the product range. And this couple of days are a lot prototyping and research. There are some days when I don't even want to touch the clay. it happens. I sit alone and open my log book and just write down all my ideas then. I do research. I might put a collage of images you know. Post 3pm I focus more on the administrative, more commercial parts of my business like looking into my website and so on.

When you made your first collection what was going through your head?
I think that again that was just through the process of elimination. I started with making wall tiles. I thought let me not start with something too complicated. I just wanted to start with flat things and get comfortable with the medium. It was very daunting that I was making this career switch. I think it’s really been like baby steps for me. When I got a little confident I moved on to small mugs and then little bigger planters, vases and so on. So I've taken baby steps with one thing, gotten comfortable with it, and moved on to the next.
As an artist what are the tools of your trade?
Clay obviously. And then my fabrics. I work a lot with textures so I collect anything. I collect a lot of found objects. Anything that could be an interesting texture on clay. These are the things I am most indebted to. I don’t use the potter's wheel at all. I hand mould all my products. Because the products are handmade they are not smooth and it’s one of the reasons I don't use wheel pottery. It would give me the perfect round. I don't want that.
It’s very instinctive for me. There’s times when I try and try a few times before I get it right. I think for me I know I’ve got something when I see it. I am making things that make me happy and I assume if it makes me happy it will make others happy too. I work with textures a lot so I do not know what to expect when I'm impressing a fabric. You don’t always get what you see. For that reason I cannot draw my designs on paper. it’s very unpredictable and is a lot about how the clay is behaving with me at the time. So the flow is very instinctive for me.

How much of your Indian identity translates into your work?
I’m not sure if it does to be honest. And I’m not consciously trying to bring any kind of Indianness to it either. It fits as much in Europe as it does in India or any other part of the world. Kara Sabi is very contemporary. For me my concern would be people appreciating beauty in cracks and in creases, and if a ceramic piece gets chipped it’s not broken, its perfectly fine. There’s no need to fix it. If that can be achieved through my pieces then that is what I want. Made in India is not the story of my brand and I am not trying to establish that.
I have a picture in my head of what I want to achieve for the brand. That drives me. I want to have my own studio. I want to be big enough that people know what Kara Sabi is. I want it to be a brand with a distinct identity. I want people to be able to identify it just by looking at it.

What have been some of the greatest influences in your life?
I don’t think there is anything specific but I have subconsciously always been interested in layering. Even if it’s art or painting, I look for that layering. That has always been very interesting to me. I have a huge collection of artworks. I find inspiration everywhere, even in a run down wall that’s peeling off. I love traveling and meeting new people. I try to take as many workshops as I can and it’s not really for the workshop it’s more for interacting with people who are coming from different parts of the world and just understanding what is their style of working, what excites them you know there’s just so much you learn from other people. Meeting different people always helps broadening your vision.
In terms of creative careers pottery wouldn’t be top on the list of money making ventures. How much of that matters to you? Is that a concern?
I have thought about this and it really varies from person to person. I was doing very well in my last job in terms of finances and I was mostly happy in the job. But it did not give me a hundred percent satisfaction. So I realised that for me it’s about the work first and then about the money. And ever since I've made that switch of course there have been days when I miss that stable income coming in to my bank account but I don't regret my decision at all. There is something here that keeps me happy, keeps me on my toes. I actually love the struggle of trying to make my business financially viable and successful.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face?
I think in India the biggest struggle with pottery is for people to understand the art. They look at the material cost which is mud and the material is cheap, yes but the time that goes into making a finished product is long. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it. And then the actual making process is tedious and time consuming. And after all that when you got to a potters market and you display your work and tell your price people are like this is made from mud why is it so expensive? This is a huge struggle—to get people to be sensitive to the craft, to have them understand the worth of something that is handcrafted as opposed to something that is mass produced. Aside from that my challenge as a creative is to get visibility for my brand. I’ve been in the market for six months. It’s all mostly online. I want to retail from stores. I want to show my work at international exhibitions. There’s a lot but I’m happy to take small steady steps and work towards these challenges.

Would you say that you are completely creatively satisfied?
In terms of my satisfaction with my decision to become a potter, yes I am completely satisfied. I feel I have purpose. But of course I'm not satisfied with where I am right now and I shouldn't be. The day I get satisfied is the day I get lenient. In that sense of course there is so much to achieve right now. And I'm learning so much and I have so much to learn. I have all these books that I've got with which I'm teaching myself. There is so much to do still. I’m just beginning.