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Rahul Kumar: Making Art, Not Just Objects

The duality in corporate executive and ceramist Rahul Kumar’s life is reflected in the opposite elements in his creations.

Days after his senior secondary exams, when his friends were weighing traditional career options, Rahul Kumar headed to the dust and grime of a lane in Paharganj, in front of the New Delhi Railway Station. There he started learning to create beauty out of clay on the wheel of a traditional potter.

Kumar says he was drawn to the medium when he was barely 10, during a pottery demonstration at New Delhi’s Central Cottage Industries Emporium. “It was sheer magic, so beautiful and effortless. I was fascinated and hooked for life,” he says. Kumar’s “extremely hesitant” parents gave in; someone escorted him for the weekly lessons before he discovered the more organized form of studio pottery at the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust

A three-time winner of a national award given by the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, Kumar studied ceramics on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Dallas, Texas, in 2008. “The Fulbright gave me tools to handle the medium. Can my work be used for expressing a thought? How? …That is something I got in the U.S. The experience was able to equip me to understand and use this form to express myself, not just make beautiful objects,” he says. 

But beauty is all about perspective and Kumar says he is not interested in making something pretty just because he wants his works to sell. “I would give 100 percent credit to the Fulbright,” he says, as it allowed him “to use this medium to express, to honestly and genuinely make art and not just beautiful objects.  In fact, I’m happy to make something that’s absolutely boring and ugly as long as it is expressing what I really want it to express.

“Of course I do need to figure out what to do with a garage full of pots,” he adds, in jest.

What comes as a surprise to most is that Kumar is a deadline-chasing corporate executive on regular days. Holder of an MBA, Kumar is employed at a consulting firm and leads a team conducting secondary and market research in Gurgaon, Haryana. Pottery is reserved for the weekends at his studio, though he hates to call it a mere hobby. He would rather call it a passion. 

So how does he reconcile these vastly opposing aspects of his life? “My life is very, very dual. I have a corporate life…and I have my artistic endeavors. They are very different from each other. My work is about doing the right thing, being politically correct and working in a team,” says Kumar. “My art is very individualistic; it’s about my expression, my space. It’s about bringing two different things in one piece. It’s like an oxymoron.”  

That is also a good description of his recent work and current inspiration. The “Harmonic Discord” series takes a leaf out of Kumar’s life. An interesting play between opposites, the ceramics reflect a duality of expression—the use of the vertical versus the horizontal, the solid versus the void. It shows internal energies trying to burst out, while a lot of external forces attack the surface. 

“I’ve tried to deal with absolute opposites and tried to bring them together, which I consider very similar to my own life,” says Kumar. “It is just two paths which move parallel but never really meet because they are very different.” 

The only medium of art which uses all five elements of nature—earth, air, water, fire and space—pottery is about giving expression to a thought using a lifeless lump of clay. But Kumar believes pottery is also a great leveler.  

“There are times when you feel like God. But the moment that gets to your head, the clay will just go off the wheel and collapse in your hands. And then you realize you are not really in full command,” he says. “Clay is like a stubborn child—you have to be firm with it but not absolutely affirmative. It will have its own mood and you have to deal with it at that moment…. But if you have no creativity you can’t do anything with it.” 

Kumar, whose works range from as small as two inches to three-and-a-half feet, says his current fascination is a continuation of the “Harmonic Discord” series where he is making opposite forms—very small feet and huge bellies. “The functionality is not important to me. …I am expressing abstract thoughts, the energy is abstract.” Usually prone to making shapes that are “well-rounded and well-bellied, much like my own self,” Kumar believes in completeness of the form.

Though art was never considered an exclusive career option, since he believes “artists all over the world starve,” Kumar was always encouraged by his parents to explore his creativity. He credits the ability to “switch on and switch off entirely” for being able to compartmentalize his life and pull it off without major hiccups. 

Communicating his creativity through clay in a journey spanning more than 15 years, Kumar’s approach conveys a style that is wholly his own. The yearning to remain true to his art seems to shine through in his work as brightly as the glaze on his ceramics.